Delays are threatening the government's review of student support as Whitehall struggles to agree a way forward, higher education minister Margaret Hodge admitted this week.
Ms Hodge said that the review would be completed next year but she had no idea when. She blamed the complexity of the issues and the fact that agreement was needed between a number of government departments before the report could be finalised.
She said: "The funding review will be out by Christmas 2002. It is extremely complex. We need to get agreement across government on a range of options, and that always takes time."
The Department for Education and Skills, which is leading the review, said initially that the review, started in the summer, would be complete early next year.
A working group of officials and ministers from the DFES, the Treasury and other departments is looking at ways of reforming the present system of student loans and undergraduate tuition fees amid fears that they deter poorer people from higher education.
A number of models have been discussed, including the replacement of upfront fees with a graduate tax or a graduate levy but, so far, none has been acceptable to all departments, politically or financially.
The Treasury is determined that no system should be agreed if the cost is met from general taxation, while the DFES is concerned that a replacement system should not take cash from university teaching and research.
A new system must also stand the test of time in a higher education system that is to expand rapidly over the next few years to include more students from poor backgrounds.
The government has promised that, by 2010, half the population will have benefited from higher education by the age of 30. The Higher Education Funding Council for England estimates that this could mean an extra 300,000 students, costing at least £1 billion.
But many of these extra students would, Ms Hodge confirmed, be employees taking short courses lasting a year or less as part of their professional development.
Another substantial chunk will be from the pool of 1 million or so relatively well-off people aged between 21 and 29 who already have level-three qualifications equivalent to two A levels - necessary for university entry - but who choose not to go.
Ms Hodge said: "This does not mean that we are not going to widen participation. I would see it as a failure if we did not widen the socioeconomic intake. (But) if we do dip into the pool (of 1 million with level-three qualifications) then maybe we can exceed the (50 per cent) target."