The government is reconsidering its position on undergraduate support after the Welsh Assembly completed a Celtic hat-trick by reinstating means-tested grants for the poorest students.
Ministers and officials reviewing student support face unprecedented pressure to reintroduce means-tested maintenance grants for the poorest, after the Welsh Assembly this week announced grants of up to £1,500 for further and higher education students living in Wales.
The assembly's decision follows the Scottish Executive's reintroduction of grants and scrapping of upfront tuition fees and the Northern Ireland Assembly's decision to introduce grants of up to £1,500.
Failure to introduce a similar support package for English students would not only be seen as iniquitous but could, by ministers' own admission, jeopardise the government's higher education expansion plans.
Education secretary Estelle Morris told The THES last year that the student support review, announced by prime minister Tony Blair in July, would look again at the balance of who pays for student support in England amid fears that the 50 per cent participation target was at risk.
Ms Morris said: "I think what has been a factor is that the perception of student debt ran the risk of putting off people applying to higher education. We might have (reached the 50 per cent target) but I do not want to run the risk."
National Union of Students president Owain James said: "The government now has a golden opportunity to get funding right for all students. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all made positive changes - the question remains: when is Whitehall going to listen?"
It is likely that the government will recommend additional grant support for the most vulnerable groups of students, such as disabled people and lone parents.
A group set up by the Department for Education and Skills in November last year is due to recommend targeted grants when it reports back at the end of this month.
Many of the recommendations of the group, chaired by Philip Harris, head of awards and examinations at Manchester University, will find their way into the DFES's consultation paper on student support, due out soon.
But a limited grants scheme for England could prove insufficient. Unless it is a means-tested grant, it will exclude the bulk of young people who fall into no specific vulnerable group other than that they come from poor backgrounds.
The means-tested Welsh "learning grant", available from the next academic year, is backed by £41 million earmarked by the Welsh Assembly. All further and higher education students who have been living in Wales for at least three years and whose residual family income falls below £15,000 a year will be entitled to a grant. They will get the grant wherever they choose to study in the United Kingdom.
The assembly, which is setting up the system in response to recommendations from the Rees report on student hardship and funding in Wales, has estimated that about 43,000 students will initially benefit from grants, averaging between £700 and £800.