Oxford colleges risk alienating working-class school-leavers with plans to increase room rents by up to 50 per cent over three years, student leaders have warned.
College heads are in talks with junior common room representatives over the proposed rent rises, after several protests this term.
Under the proposals, rooms that cost students about £2,000 a year could in some cases go up to more than £3,000 from the start of the 2006-07 academic year.
The changes are being considered by some colleges following a report from Oxford University's estates bursars committee indicating that despite rent increases over recent years, colleges are still subsidising each student by thousands of pounds.
The report on college running costs, based on a costing methodology worked out by business consultants JM Consulting, says that even after the proposed increases, students at the university would get a better deal than those living in private rented accommodation.
Rent levels also vary significantly between colleges, ranging from £1,698 a year up to £2,490. The report argues that this brings a "risk of inequality of applicants", and that this pattern "does not sit comfortably with the wish to widen access to Oxford".
But junior common room leaders say they are concerned that the proposed headline increases in rent will discourage would-be applicants from less affluent backgrounds, even though colleges are planning to put some of the extra money into special student-support and hardship funds.
A paper produced by the junior common room at Magdalen College argues that proposals to increase rents would see the proportion of students needing college assistance increase from 19 per cent to nearly 60 per cent.
Chris Guelff, president of Magdalen's junior common room, said: "Our main objection is that no matter how good a system of student support the college may have, prospective students will be put off by the headline costs."
Peter Dale, president of the junior common room at St Catherine's College, where rents could go up from just over £2,000 a year to about Pounds 3,450 by 2009, said: "Hardship funds are an unknown for many people. They do not know how much support they will get until they get here. But they know how much they are going to have to pay."
A university spokeswoman said that the JM Consulting document was only being used by colleges as a guide to understand their costs.
She added: "There was no suggestion that the full economic costs should, or would, be passed on in full to students.
"Some colleges may feel that rather than subsidise every student across the board, they could increase rents and use the extra money to subsidise better those students who need it the most."
'I will have to take more paid work'
Dan Simpson, a first-year modern history student at Balliol College, Oxford, is worried that rent rises will hamper his studies.
He said he was certain he would have to get more paid work if his college goes ahead with its plans.
The £700 a term he pays could go up by £300 this year- a rise that would push him into "significant debt" even though he receives a bursary and maximum loan entitlement.
His father is unemployed, so he does not expect any financial support from his parents. "I will be left with no option but to take on more paid work.
That will make things very difficult because of my academic commitments, and it will make it impossible to take part in any extra curricular activities," he said.
He said many of his fellow students who do not get a bursary are in a worse position.
"The colleges say they need to charge the full economic cost for rooms, but they forget that students do not have much choice about where they live.
Regulations say you must live in at least in your first year."