Leading vice-chancellors may ignore government plans to pay £9,000 "golden hellos" to attract lecturers into shortage subjects, scuppering a Labour manifesto commitment.
The elite Russell Group of 19 research-intensive universities had discussed plans to refuse the money, a senior source said.
Warwick University was understood to have decided already to reject its £5,000 allocation for the scheme, although it declined to comment this week.
"This is exactly the sort of micro-management the government promised to remove, and it's certainly too much for us to stomach," said a Russell Group source. "But even if we could stomach it, the sums involved are too small to make a difference."
There was also concern that the scheme could breach equal opportunities laws as it would exclude some staff, who might be doing exactly the same job in the same field as the scheme's beneficiaries; it might disproportionately benefit male lecturers; and it would exclude key shortage subjects.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England confirmed that it planned to allocate £20 million over three years for special salary payments for new recruits in six shortage subject areas from next month, despite concerns raised during consultation.
Only about half the responses to the consultation were "broadly in support of the initiative".
Payments will be based on the size of universities. But Hefce explained:
"We should remain mindful of the need for the government to fulfil its manifesto commitment. For this reason, we do not intend to amend certain essential criteria of the scheme."
Recruits in six nationally defined shortage subjects - education, computing, business (including accountancy, finance, economics and law), mathematics, engineering and clinical medicine - would be paid £9,000 on top of their standard salaries, spread over three years to encourage retention. Recruits would get £4,000 in the first year, £3,000 in the second and £2,000 in the third.
But the rules would exclude a large number of staff. Only those with no previous experience of teaching in higher education would be eligible, and those on short-term contracts or who are paid hourly would be excluded.
There was concern that Hefce had washed its hands of the potential problem of unfairness by including in a code of practice the single sentence: "HEIs will need to ensure that their methods of allocation comply with equal opportunities legislation."
Calls for the inclusion of subjects allied to medicine were rejected "as this would be a decision for the Department of Health".
Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, said:
"Why on earth are medics eligible but not speech therapists or nurses? Doesn't a manifesto commitment apply to the DoH?"
He said that while traditionally male-dominated subjects such as medicine were included, female-dominated areas such as nursing were not. "Equality of opportunity could be achieved only if universities had been free to apply the money across all staff vacancies, including support staff, in a manner consistent with their own information on shortage areas," he said.
A spokeswoman for Hefce said: "The golden hellos scheme has been developed following widespread consultation with the sector. To ensure consistency, our code of practice asks institutions themselves to ensure that they comply with equal opportunities legislation."