But students who live with both parents have their fees based on an assessment of joint income. A Department for Education and Employment spokesman said yesterday: "This has been the position for many years. Ministers are concerned, however, that this is not always the right approach."
Liability for fees and access to loans both depend on a means test of parental income, calculated by local education authorities. Students whose parents' income falls below pounds 17,370 pay no fees, but those whose parents earn more than pounds 27,800 pay the pounds 1,025-a-year fee in full and are entitled to smaller loans to cover living costs, on the basis that their parents make up the difference.
For most students the income of both parents is assessed but there are no guidelines governing means tests for parents who are divorced or live apart.
Yesterday a National Union of Students spokesman said: "Students should not be penalised for whatever financial arrangements their parents entered into when they divorced or separated.
"The Government cannot look to this as a way of maximising revenue or finding new funds. If the purpose of this review is to cut the burden of student support by assessing students against whichever parent has the most income, that would be entirely inappropriate. That would be just another anomaly in a system which has students' financial circumstances dependent on their parents' or partners' income."
This year is the second that students have had to pay tuition fees, equivalent to a quarter of the cost of an average degree course. But for the first time there will be no grants and students will have to rely on loans to cover living costs.
The Department for Education and Employment stressed that absent parents was only one part of a wider review and insisted no decisions had been made. The spokesman said: "We promised when we introduced the new arrangements for student support that we would review assessment procedures, many of which are outdated, to ensure that they are fair and reflect modern social and family circumstances.
"Where parents do not live together, only one is assessed for a contribution and LEAs have discretion as to which parent that should be.
"In practice, this tends to be the parent the child lives with because that is the parent who bears primary financial responsibility for maintaining the student.
"Officials are currently reviewing the financial assessment arrangements more generally, with a view to streamlining them and removing clear anomalies for the 2000-2001 academic year."
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