Maintenance grants of up to Pounds 3,500 could be re-introduced for the very poorest students, under plans produced by the Department for Education and Employment.
A draft report presented to ministers has recommended that up to 10 per cent of access funds should be set aside for guaranteed bursaries over three years.
A spokeswoman for the DFEE said: "As part of the review of access funds, we asked for views from HEIs on whether flexibility to carry forward a percentage of their allocation across academic years would be helpful, particularly in enabling them to offer bursaries. Our review has shown that HEIs would welcome this change. The outcome of the review will be announced shortly."
Access funds were established ten years ago, when social security benefits were withdrawn from students who could not find work during the summer months. Each university and college decides who should benefit from the funds, which are non-repayable.
The government more than doubled its spending on access funds in higher and further education to Pounds 72 million in 1998, the year in which tuition fees were introduced and maintenance grants phased out. This year more than Pounds 62 million has been distributed to institutions in England alone.
The Cubie report on support for Scottish students has recommended that money available for access funds should be redirected to bursary schemes. It recommended that Pounds 8 million - 80 per cent of access funds - be switched. A limited fund should remain to assist unpredictable hardship cases.
Maggie Woodrow, of the European Access Network at the University of Westminster, said that exchanging access funds for bursaries was a much more efficient way of distributing money. "No one can go into higher education on the basis that they might get some access funding if they scrabble around."
Tony Bruce, head of policy at the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said: "Giving out bursaries on a year-by-year basis is not helpful. This proposal is a logical and worthwhile extension, and we would support it in principle." And John Brennan, head of policy development at the Association of Colleges, said: "We see the need for a proper systematic bursaries rather than discretionary awards - a structured system with a guaranteed element."
Universities and colleges also called for more cash to support disadvantaged students, such as mature students or those with childcare costs, said the DFEE spokeswoman.