The government's review of undergraduate support may recommend means-tested, non-repayable grants and fee waivers for part-time, mature and disabled students.
The review is expected to conclude that student loans are not sufficient for people who, due to age, family responsibilities or physical disability, experience particular barriers to higher education.
The review, set up by the Department for Education and Skills in November to look at targeted support for the most vulnerable students, is due to report to ministers at the end of this month. It is part of, and so will feed into, the government's over-arching review of support for all students.
The review group, chaired by Philip Harris, head of awards and examinations at Manchester University, was tasked with simplifying the support system and finding ways in which the financial barriers to access might be removed.
Its brief was limited at the outset because it was told to assume that there would be no more money for student support. It was told to concentrate on mature students, including parent students, the disabled and part-timers. The brief excluded younger students disadvantaged because they are from poor backgrounds.
The group, which comprises more than 20 people from higher education institutions, local education authorities and government departments, is considering recommending small grants for mature students and part-timers to encourage them to take up short taster courses.
The group may also recommend that tuition fees be waived for these short courses. It is also looking at the possibility of small grants for longer courses.
Given the monetary constraints imposed, the group has focused on reducing the number of separate funds available to disadvantaged students.
Funds currently available include hardship loans, access bursaries, the lone parents' grant, the childcare grant, the dependents' grant, the travel, books and equipment grant, the school meals grant and the disabled students grant. On top of this, students in these categories are eligible for student loans and may, or may not be eligible to pay tuition fees.
The DFES this week clarified further details of its review, the results of which will be delayed because of the complexity of the student funding issue.
It has emerged that there will now be two reports from government. The first, expected later this year, will set out a number of student support options including, it is assumed, some recommended by Dr Harris's group. These will then be put out to consultation in the education sector.
The government will then produce a final report, taking into account responses from the consultation. There is no specific date for this final report though it may coincide with the publication of the results of the spending review, due in July. The earliest any changes to student finance could be implemented is 2003.
The government has agreed that the baseline participation rate for the proportion of 18 to 30-year-olds in higher education is 41 per cent for 2000-01. This comprises all people on courses lasting one year or longer, above level-3 qualifications, that will lead to a qualification recognised by higher education institutions or widely recognised national awarding bodies.
The proportion looks set to increase later this year when the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority completes a review of professional courses lasting less than a year. The government thinks these courses ought to be included in any definition of what counts as higher education.
Adults see further study as costly risk
Many mature students see the decision to enter higher education as a gamble rather than an investment, a study for the Department for Education and Skills reveals. The study warns that prospective students need better information, particularly about funding and timetabling, if the fall in mature student enrolments is to be reversed, writes Olga Wojtas .
The study, by Pat Davies of Sheffield University, Mike Osborne of Stirling University, and Jenny Williams of Wolverhampton University, says targets for expansion and widening participation will be jeopardised if the downward trend continues.
The team investigated almost 900 mature entrants and 500 potential entrants around the country. It found that while some were very determined to study, many were much less confident that they could juggle their commitments. Even a high level of commitment did not translate easily into adults applying and entering higher education if they saw the risks involved as too high.
The researchers said the sense of risk was exacerbated by confusion or ignorance about the range of financial support available and the cost of study. Applicants complained of the lack of a single source of information, and inadequate advisory services. Cost was the most important barrier.
"Potential entrants in particular saw higher education study as an immediate investment of time and finances while the benefits were long-term and less certain," the report says.