The new system of grants for childcare introduced last autumn is so complex that many students eligible for financial help are put off claiming the whole package, says a report published this week.
Students with two or more children may receive up to £8,840 a year under the Dependants' Grant scheme but claimants may have to liaise with several agencies to get the full amount, according to research by the Elizabeth Nuffield Educational Fund.
Healthcare students, including nurses, and parents of disabled children are particularly badly served, it concludes.
"A bewildering array of... components, both statutory and discretionary, confronts student applicants," says the report, UK Childcare Support for Student Parents .
It says the new system has generated confusion among parents and has compounded the administrative burdens on local authorities and universities.
It has also uncovered evidence that some Benefits Agency offices have counted childcare payments as income and have reduced benefits accordingly.
For university students, assessment and processing of applications is carried out by local education authorities. The money is paid by the Student Loans Company.
Extra discretionary help is available from institutions through access bursaries, hardship grants and grants for school meals, travel, books and equipment.
In further education, childcare support is entirely discretionary although in 2001-02 some £30 million of ring-fenced funds have been paid to colleges for this purpose.
The report challenges the bias against informal childcare. Grants are restricted to formal care, although demand for places in nurseries and with registered childminders outstrips supply.
Informal care, provided by relatives or friends, is discretionary, limited to further education students and payable only when formal care is unavailable. In some ethnic communities extended family care is central to cultural identity and this should be recognised with financial support if the government is serious about widening participation, the report says.