Oxford University is to spend a third of its top-up fee income on "opportunity bursaries" from 2006 - but only 3 per cent of undergraduates are expected to qualify for a full award, worth £10,000 for most courses.
Based on Oxford's current intake of students, 80 per cent of entrants will get no help from the bursary scheme, which the university said would cost about £6 million a year to run.
About 90 students from households with an annual income below £16,000 out of about 3,000 the university admits each year are expected to qualify for the most generous bursary in the scheme. This will award them £4,000 in the first year followed by £3,000 in each subsequent year of a degree course. For four-year courses, the bursary could be worth £13,000.
About 510 students are likely to fall into one of two income bands for bursaries usually worth a total of either £8,200 or £5,500. The rest from households earning £33,500 upwards will have to rely on student loans and help from their parents to cover costs.
The university, which unveiled the scheme this week as it confirmed that it plans to charge the maximum £3,000 a year fees for all its courses from 2006, said there would be no cap on the number of bursaries available.
Together with the new government maintenance grant, the bursary will allow the poorest students to cover estimated annual living costs in Oxford of Pounds 5,700, it added.
John Hood, Oxford's vice-chancellor, said the bursaries would make Oxford "the most affordable place to study for talented British students from families with the least financial resources".
The National Union of Students welcomed the scheme, adding that it hoped it was a model that other institutions would follow.
But it said that the small proportion of students likely to benefit was an issue that "needs to be addressed".
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, warned that the scheme and others like it were a precursor to top-up fees being raised above Pounds 3,000 a year from 2009.
He said: "It is part of the Trojan Horse that is being offered to ensure that fees can go up. It would be better if universities such as Oxford spent the money on trying to attract more private investment to help them catch up with their American competitors."