Universities are considering putting part of the income from top-up fees into cash awards to attract bright students, rather than restricting their bursary programmes to applicants from poor backgrounds.
The American-style performance awards, criticised by union leaders this week, may store up trouble from the Office for Fair Access if they are thought to divert resources that would otherwise go into widening access to courses.
Coventry and Middlesex universities have pioneered performance-linked scholarships this year by offering £1,000 a year to undergraduates who achieved a higher A-level score than the institution's average, regardless of their family income. They are paid out in instalments if the students make satisfactory progress during their course.
To be eligible for the Coventry scholarship students needed either an A and two Cs or two Bs and a C, while at Middlesex the target was set at three Bs or an A, B and C grade.
Mike Goldstein, former Coventry vice-chancellor, said Coventry's scholarship scheme was "designed to get a little more commitment from students but also to move away from modern universities being just second-choice institutions".
Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex and chairman of Campaigning Modern Universities, the umbrella body representing post-92 institutions, said universities would vary their student support packages rather than fee levels, which would be fixed at the maximum £3,000.
But he said that it would be the leading Russell Group universities, with the lowest proportions of non-traditional students, that would come under most pressure to demonstrate their financial commitment to widening participation.
Peter Slee, pro-vice-chancellor at Northumbria University, said his institution was yet to make its final decision on fees and bursaries.
But he said: "You might find that a number of post-92s look more at scholarships on the grounds that they are almost certain to meet their access targets and want to attract students of a high calibre."
Lecturers' union Natfhe said such moves would be "completely perverse" and would fly in the face of the Higher Education Act, which set up the access watchdog Offa to ensure that universities were using part of their top-up fee income to support the poorest students.
Andy Pike, a national official for higher education at Nathe, said: "What's the point of giving more money to middle class students - how will it help widen access."
Meanwhile, offering a twist on student finances, Luton University is considering special discounts on tuition fees, or larger bursaries, for students who apply early. Governors considered premium fee rates for early applicants in April.
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