University heads have doubts about the new fee and bursary regime's ability to attract more working-class students to higher education or to generate enough extra income to prevent course closures, a survey by KPMG and The Times Higher has revealed.
An overwhelming majority (82 per cent) said the extra income from variable tuition fees, grants and bursaries coming into force next year would improve their financial position. But many doubted that it would be enough to prevent cutbacks. Forty-four per cent said the changes would not prevent course closures - and 30 per cent said they could not be sure.
Almost half said that they were unsure whether the new system would succeed in attracting poor students to university. One in five vice-chancellors said they were certain the new system would fail to widen participation across the social classes.
In all, 72 universities and colleges took part in the survey, which also gives the first detailed insight into how the market for bursaries is developing.
The survey found that 41 per cent of institutions have not carried out market research, prompting the National Union of Students to claim it would be a "leap in the dark for all involved".
Kat Fletcher, the NUS president, said: "It appears that many vice-chancellors will be watching the chaos from the registry window and scratching their heads, wondering what the point was and whether participation rates or indeed their own finances will actually improve.
"It paints a bleak picture for the future of higher education."
The survey also reveals that bursaries will range from the £300 minimum required by law to £5,000. One in four institutions will top up the amount students receive depending on their A-level results or Universities and Colleges Admissions Service scores.
Another key finding is that students will need a keen eye for small print in 2006 to weigh up the plethora of deals on offer.
Simon Hackwell, head of the higher education advisory team at consultants KPMG, said: "While the great unknown will be how price conscious students and their parents will be in 2006, it's clear they will face a bewildering choice."
John Rushforth, deputy director of the Office for Fair Access, said: "There is likely to be more complexity around finance for students. But, as part of their access agreement, institutions are committing themselves to providing clear information for students about what's on offer."
Michael Driscoll, chairman of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, the body representing post-92 institutions, said that despite much scepticism, everyone hoped the effect of the system would be positive.
"Everyone hopes it will help increase the number of students from poor backgrounds and help support the financial operation of universities. But no one, including the Government, believes this will be sufficient."
Michael Sterling, chairman of the Russell Group, predicted there would be a "trading up" of well-qualified poor students into elite universities and "displacement" of well-qualified middle-class students. He did not believe there would be any additional poor students entering the system overall.
He added: "There is also a lot of misunderstanding. Even academics don't understand that students will no longer pay upfront."