Education secretary Estelle Morris must stand up to the Whitehall "bullies" responsible for delays to the education department's review of student support, opposition politicians said this week.
Second-guessing by Downing Street and the Treasury was slowing the work of the Department for Education and Skills, said Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis and shadow education secretary Damian Green.
Their calls came as it emerged that the results of the student support review, started last summer, may not be released until this summer, about the time of the spending review outcome due in July. Originally, the results had been expected early this year.
Mr Willis said: "It is time for Ms Morris to stand up for what she believes is right for education. She is in danger of becoming an impotent secretary of state."
He also called on vice-chancellors to "draw a line in the sand" and fight cut-price expansion to reach the 50 per cent participation target. "They should make it clear to the government that there will be no more expansion unless there is more money."
Mr Green said: "What has become apparent is that Estelle Morris is being second-guessed by the Treasury and No 10. The education department seems like the third most important body in deciding education policy."
He said Ms Morris had opened the door to interference by making the student support review an internal government review. He called on her to put a number of options out to public consultation as soon as possible.
The government decided to hold an internal review because it did not want a long inquiry. But more than six months on, officials from the DfES, Treasury and, it is thought, other departments are still trying to agree on how to reform student support.
Responding to Mr Willis's call for vice-chancellors to make a stand, a spokeswoman for Universities UK said: "In our experience, this isn't a line vice-chancellors generally take. However, Universities UK's submission to the government's 2002 spending review clearly indicates that extra money is needed if universities are to achieve the government's 50 per cent participation target."
A DfES spokesman said the review was considering all options but it would not provide a running commentary throughout.