Million+, which represents post-1992 institutions, has attacked the new Dux scheme, which will allow schools to select one Year 9 pupil and one teacher to visit one of the research-intensive universities.
Schools will be able to reclaim travel expenses and the costs of supply cover from the Department of Education.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, said she believed it was wrong to devote extra funds solely to wealthier universities, which had already pledged to do outreach work at their own expense.
“This scheme is pure tokenism and suggests that education ministers have no real understanding of the role of all universities in supporting opportunities and increasing aspirations,” she said.
“The same ministers abolished the Educational Maintenance Allowance which helped large numbers of pupils from lower-income families continue their studies and progress to university.”
Details of the cost of the scheme have not yet been revealed, but it marks a shift in government policy, which had previously insisted that outreach work should be funded primarily by universities as a requirement of their access agreements.
It follows reports that education secretary Michael Gove is keen to take control of the higher education sector, which currently falls under the remit of the Department of Business, Skills and Innovation, which is run by business secretary Vince Cable.
Defending the scheme, schools Minister Nick Gibb said: “Our world-class universities are for all those with good qualifications and real promise – not just the few.
“They already do a great deal to increase access to higher education and run extensive outreach programmes offering a wide range of opportunities for school pupils.
“This is about ensuring that schools are playing their part in promoting excellence and in supporting pupils, including from disadvantaged backgrounds, to aim for prestigious universities.
“I am delighted that so many leading universities are committed to the programme.”
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: “All of our universities look forward to welcoming the winners and their teachers and helping to build long-term working relationships so that all young people - whatever their background or school type - know that a Russell Group university could be within their grasp.
“We’re ready to offer all top achievers - whether or not they win the Dux - the chance of a place: we need their teachers or advisors to persuade them to apply.
“Wherever you’re from, with the right grades, attitude and potential, you have a good chance of getting into a Russell Group university.”