The lure of large university bursaries could prompt higher drop- out rates among students, university heads warned this week.
Vice-chancellors are concerned that promises of upfront cash from institutions could do more harm than good - by enticing students from poor backgrounds onto unsuitable degree courses that might not offer adequate academic and welfare support after they enrol.
Speaking at a conference on fair access and widening participation organised by Universities UK, Ivor Crewe, president of UUK and vice-chancellor of Essex University, said: "Although financial support for maintenance is very welcome, students from non-traditional backgrounds also require other types of support throughout their degree course, including academic and welfare support."
Professor Crewe said that institutions experienced in taking on disadvantaged students did not have the resources to match bursary schemes at universities such as Oxford, Exeter, Imperial College London and University College London.
Geoff Layer, professor of lifelong learning at Bradford University, said a number of factors were involved when a programme of study was abandoned, but instead of focusing only on cost, students should spend time identifying what type of course suited them.
"The price should not be a factor: it's about the back-up, the customer service that goes with it, and whether the quality of the experience is right for them," he said.
Professor Crewe also called on the Government to continue funding Aimhigher, an initiative aimed at raising the aspirations of young people.
It received £90 million this year, but there are no plans to allocate it cash in 2006.
A £2 million research programme into widening participation was launched this week. It is being coordinated by the Economic and Social Science Research Council and funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.