Students will face a "volatile market" in bursaries and scholarships in 2006 as the "great majority" of universities prepare to charge £3,000 tuition fees, Sir Martin Harris, the university access tsar, revealed this week.
In an exclusive interview with The Times Higher , Sir Martin gave the first official overview of universities' plans and confirmed that most would compete to attract undergraduates by offering financial aid rather than lower fees.
Of the 1 institutions expected to lodge plans for 2006, to be approved by the Office for Fair Access (Offa), 85 universities and colleges had made submissions by the January 4 deadline. The remaining 42 institutions have had "informal" talks about their plans with the access regulator.
Sir Martin revealed that so far only Leeds Metropolitan University was planning to charge students less than £3,000, but added that "a few others" that have yet to submit their final plans for regulatory approval may follow suit.
He said that a "very volatile market in bursaries and scholarships" was emerging, offering students a variety of support schemes. Some universities are proposing extra bursaries for disabled students while others plan to offer financial aid targeted at neighbourhoods from which few teenagers go to university.
Further institutions were poised to offer "bursaries in kind" in the form of remission of the cost of field trips or science equipment and computers, Sir Martin disclosed.
Other universities are proposing to offer bursaries linked to networks of partner schools and colleges in a bid to encourage applications from their sixthformers.
It is understood that Plymouth University, for example, may offer bursaries to applicants from more than 20 schools and colleges in Devon and Cornwall.
Sir Martin added that some institutions were hoping to offer scholarships linked to academic performance - some would be linked to family income, others would recognise purely academic achievement.
Imperial College London looks set to offer bursaries of up to £4,000, assessed on a combination of income and academic performance at A level.
Bristol University is expected to offer £1,000 to all students who are entitled to full state support, £600 for those on partial support, plus 100 scholarships of £1,500 a year, regardless of their family income.
But Sir Martin indicated that a difference in approach between old and new universities was becoming evident.
"With a small number of exceptions, patterns are emerging whereby universities that have the furthest to go in terms of access are tending to look at how scholarships and bursaries can broaden their socioeconomic mix," he said.
"Universities that will receive less income from fees are preferring to focus more on support for the poorest students."
Kim Howells, the Higher Education Minister, said he had seen Sir Martin briefly before Christmas.
"He didn't give me the impression that access agreements were looking problematic - quite the contrary. I know that he believes that most universities have very good stories to tell."
Each university that had submitted its access plan to the regulator by January 4 will have to wait until March 11 to hear whether it has Sir Martin's approval to increase fees and set up the new bursaries.
Universities that did not submit their access plans to Offa by the initial deadline have until March 18 to finalise their proposals.
Hannah Essex of the National Union of Students said: "Simply offering students cash incentives, while this may be necessary in the current climate of student hardship, will not challenge the inequalities in our education system.
"Students will suffer increased financial hardship once variable fees are introduced, whether or not they receive support, and will be forced to make decisions about higher education based on cost and not aspiration or potential."
But Michael Carr, executive director of the Russell Group, said: "It should only be expected that universities generally would wish to be imaginative and distinctive in the support arrangements they would wish to put in place from 2006."
FINANCIAL AID PACKAGES ON OFFER
* Bursaries for students from poor backgrounds
* Bursaries for disabled students
* Bursaries in kind (to cover costs of computers and field trips)
* Bursaries linked to local schools and colleges
* Scholarships for academic performance
* Scholarships for academic performance combined with low family income
* Extra hardship funds for the poorest students
* Financial aid for students just missing out on state support.