Mature students and young students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be promised bursaries before they enrol in higher education, the new student support arrangements reveal.
Universities will be able to offer them to prospective students who might not otherwise consider taking a course.
Sir Brian Fender, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, wrote to vice-chancellors last week: "The allocation of access bursaries will be important because it allows institutions to offer financial help to students before they start a course and not just as a last measure to prevent drop out."
Mature full-time students and mature students completing teacher training will be eligible for a non-repayable bursary of up to Pounds 1,000 a year, guaranteed for up to three years, from this autumn. Young students from disadvantaged backgrounds will become eligible a year later.
The funding council has allocated cash for at least 14,700 mature student bursaries this year. According to figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, some 34,600 students aged over 25 accepted a full-time place for autumn 1999.
Students will be able to apply for the money, administered by institutions, as soon as they have accepted a place. The funding council has earmarked Pounds 2 million for universities and colleges to advertise and run the scheme.
Widening participation expert Maggie Woodrow welcomed the move but criticised it for not going far enough. She said: "You need to know the money will be there before you apply. I would not want to risk encouraging my child to apply for university only to find later there wasn't the funding. I don't think families should be put in this position."
The funding council has allocated Pounds 14.7 million for the bursary schemes for the next academic year. Some Pounds 57 million will be channelled into a hardship fund, from which all home students facing hardship will be eligible for a non-repayable grant.
From September 2001, mature students will become eligible for a child-care grant of Pounds 100 a week, which will be run by local education authorities.
Payments to mature students from the bursary scheme will be phased out.
A typical student owes Pounds 5,286 on graduation, according to a survey published last week by Barclays Bank. The figure, for students who graduated in summer 1999, was 17.5 per cent higher than the previous year.
Some 80 per cent of recent graduates owed money to the Student Loans Company, 61 per cent to banks and 28 per cent to credit card companies. The bank identified a funding gap between the 17.5 per cent growth in student debt and the 8 per cent growth in funds available from the Student Loans Company.