Student leaders turned up the pressure on the government to restore maintenance grants this week with new figures to back their case and a fresh campaign in Wales.
The latest calculations from the National Union of Students reveal that the cost of introducing to England and Wales the package of support originally proposed by the Cubie report in Scotland - including a maintenance bursary for low-income students - would be half of what it would cost to reintroduce grants at 1997 levels.
The NUS says that for £539 million a year, it would be possible to fund the Cubie recommendations for an end to up-front tuition fees, the introduction of grants worth up to £2,500 a year, increased loan entitlement, bursaries for access, childcare allowances and vacation-time benefits.
Another £148 million would pay for a bursary entitlement for further education students and harmonisation of the means test for further and higher education.
Owain James, NUS president, said the government should use some of the £950 million a year it was saving from shifting to resource-based accounting on student loans to pay for a Cubie-style solution in England and Wales.
He pointed out that with the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies considering proposals for the re-introduction of grants, Westminster was looking increasingly isolated. "Even the University of Oxford is reported to be considering introducing grants. It would be an absurd situation if only students at English universities outside of Oxford were not entitled to a grant," he said.
The NUS was encouraged by recent comments made by prime minister Tony Blair, indicating that ministers were ready to reconsider the balance of contributions between students and the public purse in funding higher education. Mr Blair said student hardship had been the number one complaint on the doorstep during the general election.
The Department for Education and Skills has said it has no plans for a special review of student support. But it has not ruled out additional measures to alleviate hardship. A spokesman said: "We are monitoring the situation as we monitor all aspects of education policy. Widening participation is a key goal for this government. We have an ambitious target for 2010 and we want to achieve it."
NUS Wales this week launched a campaign for the full implementation of recommendations in the Rees report on student hardship in Wales, commissioned by the Welsh Assembly. The report called for a learning maintenance bursary and the abolition of up-front tuition fees. People at the National Eisteddfod in Denbigh this week were asked to sign a petition on t-shirts, which will be presented to the assembly's finance minister, Edwina Hart.
NUS Wales president Steve Brooks said: "Many of the powers required to implement the Rees recommendations rest with Whitehall but we are encouraging assembly ministers to apply as much pressure as possible."
Vice-chancellors are also planning to raise concerns about levels of student debt and hardship as part of their submission to the government's departmental spending review next year.
Universities UK president Roderick Floud said: "We are very worried that the perceived costs of going to university are putting off potential students from low-income households. UUK is determined to address these issues as a matter of urgency."