The Welsh Assembly has been urged to press Westminster to allow the abolition of upfront tuition fees in Wales and the re-introduction of a means-tested maintenance grant.
The recommendations come from an independent inquiry into student hardship in Wales, set up at the invitation of the assembly to run alongside its higher education review.
The nine-strong inquiry team's report, published this week, calls for higher and further education students in Wales to be entitled to means-tested maintenance support and for fees to be replaced by a Scottish-style income-contingent graduate endowment contribution.
It recommends that from next year, access and hardship funds should be rolled into two new schemes: learner maintenance bursaries and financial contingency funds. Some £52 million should be allocated initially to these schemes, the report says.
The bursaries would be means-tested annual entitlements worth from £75 to £1,500.
Additional support worth up to £1,000 a year should be provided for those with childcare costs and up to £500 for learners over the age of 25.
Financial contingency funds, which should be available to non-Welsh students studying in Wales, would be set aside to cover financial crises and emergencies in the form of grants or loans.
The recommendations follow a six-month investigation by the inquiry team, involving research and public meetings across Wales.
It found that "the current system advantages those from better-off families at the expense of those from non-traditional backgrounds".
Three-quarters of Welsh students are expected to graduate with an average debt of £3,648, rising to about £12,500 by 2004.
Yet the inquiry discovered that "the families of learners in higher education from wealthier backgrounds now contribute less to the education of their offspring under the fees and loans system than they did under the previous system of means-tested maintenance grants and no fees".
The report recommends that more stringent means-testing should be introduced for loans to "deter the better-off from taking out publicly subsidised loans (in effect a grant) that they do not need".
The inquiry team says it recognises that there is a limit to what the assembly can achieve on its own on student hardship.
"We believe it is essential, therefore, for the national assembly to enter into a dialogue with the UK government to encourage it to invest more resource into student support, rethink the issue of means-tested maintenance for students in higher education and consider extending such support for learners in further education," the report says.