Tens of thousands of mature students could be forced to pay their £3,000 top-up fees upfront this year because the Government has blocked their access to state grants or loans.
Student leaders have expressed "outrage" after the Department for Education and Skills confirmed that the Government would not provide financial support from the 2006-07 academic year for any student who has already benefited from state financial support to study for a degree.
Anyone falling into this category will not be eligible for loans that allow students to defer payment of the £3,000 tuition fee until they are in full-time employment. Nor will such students be entitled to the £2,700 available in grants or loans to cover their maintenance while studying.
The DFES also confirmed that students who have undertaken previous study in higher education, but who have not completed degrees, will also have their financial support cut for each year of previous study they have undertaken.
About 50,000 students could be hit by the rules. But an entitlement to an additional year of support beyond the stated length of a degree course should protect those who did a foundation degree or a higher national diploma before starting a degree.
The rules have alarmed the National Union of Students, and one specialist college warned this week that up to a third of its accepted students for 2006-07 may be forced to abandon their courses.
Julian Nicholds, NUS vice-president for education, said that it would be hard enough for students to manage financially under the top-up fees regime even with full support.
"It is therefore outrageous to expect those students who have studied previously to pay £3,000 fees upfront without any sort of financial support, or with support but for only part of the duration of their course," he said.
"The Government must recognise the deterrent effect it will have on many potential students who have no way of privately funding the huge cost of top-up fees but need to study further to realise a career aspiration."
Margaret Wolff, vice-principal of the British School of Osteopathy, said that the rules had been confirmed far too late in the day and could have devastating consequences.
"More than a third of students currently holding offers from the school have been in higher education previously; we are having to break the news to them ourselves," she said.
Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that in 2004-05, 11,060 first-year students had previously attended a degree course in the UK, and a further 42,555 had undertaken "other undergraduate" study.
A DFES spokesman said the department had no figures for those students planning to start courses in 2006 who had already studied in higher education.
He said: "The general principle of the revised rules will be that support is available for the length of the course, plus one additional year if needed.
"This principle will be applied in the same way to students who have previously undertaken a sub-honours degree course such as a higher national diploma or foundation degree.
"Therefore, a student on a degree course that would ordinarily take three years to complete who had previously taken two years to complete an HND course would have two years of support remaining for the degree course."