Further education colleges are to be given extra time to decide whether to charge top-up fees for higher education courses, amid concerns that fees might deter working-class students from enrolling on degrees.
Many colleges decided to charge less than the maximum £3,000 a year for courses, a Times Higher survey found this month, while others opted to charge no fees.
Sir Martin Harris, the director of fair access, said this week that he was pushing back by at least five months the deadline for access-agreement submissions for 2007 from such colleges.
All 109 colleges that receive some direct funding for higher education will be given until January 2006, rather than September this year as originally planned, to make their submissions.
In contrast to universities, fees will vary significantly in colleges, and no one knows how they will affect students from poor backgrounds.
Sir Martin, who was speaking at an Association of Colleges higher education in further education conference in Harrogate on Tuesday, said he was prepared to listen sympathetically to arguments from college heads that they should be given even more time to submit their proposals.
His announcement was welcomed by further education leaders, who had been concerned that colleges would not be given enough time to gauge the impact of fees on their sensitive market.
Sir Martin told conference delegates that 70 colleges had opted not to introduce fees next year. Many, he said, had very few higher education students and had decided to wait to see how the market reacted before considering charging fees.
Speaking to The Times Higher before the conference, he said: "Now that we are familiar with the process, we are in a position to be more flexible about the deadline. If colleges say they need even more time to gauge how the market is behaving we will listen to them sympathetically."
Sir Martin also repeated a call for the Government to consider extending student loans to part-time students on the same terms pro rata as those available to full-timers.
He said: "There has never been any suggestion that part-time fees should be regulated. But there is no reason why part-time students should not be allowed to borrow on the same terms as full-time students to cover their costs."
John Widdowson, chairman of the Mixed Economy Group of colleges, welcomed Sir Martin's comments. But he said the sector was concerned about recent decisions by the Learning and Skills Council that appeared to indicate it was withdrawing support from higher education in further education colleges.
Earlier this year, the LSC decided to axe its share of funding for Aimhigher, leaving some further and higher education partnerships facing cuts of up to 40 per cent.
There are now questions about the LSC's commitment to lifelong learning networks across the country and its policy on funding capital projects for higher education in further education colleges.
Mr Widdowson said: "We are looking for a clear statement of policy from the LSC."