Universities have been urged to maintain their commitment to access and outreach in the tough economic climate as figures show that spending on bursaries and scholarships has reached record levels.
The Office for Fair Access reported on 5 August that universities spent just over a quarter (25.8 per cent) of the extra income they receive from tuition fees - £344 million - on access measures in 2008-09, up from 25 per cent the previous year.
A total of £304 million was spent on bursaries and scholarships for students from low-income backgrounds and from other under-represented groups.
David Barrett, assistant director of Offa, said the figures were "evidence of the continued commitment of universities to widening participation and fair access".
But he warned that, amid funding constraints and restrictions on places, it was "more important now than ever" that widening participation and fair access were protected.
The data show wide variation in what universities spent on bursaries.
The universities spending the highest proportion of their additional fee income on bursaries and scholarships were Thames Valley University (41 per cent), the University of Cumbria (40.1 per cent) and the University of Central Lancashire (36 per cent).
Those spending the smallest proportions were Middlesex University (7.7 per cent), the University for the Creative Arts (10.1 per cent) and Keele University (11.7 per cent).
Take-up of bursaries is now 96 per cent among the poorest students.
In total, more than 346,000 students from low-income or other under-represented groups received a bursary or scholarship in 2008-09, the third year of top-up fees.
Mr Barrett said that if universities felt "the balance of evidence" suggested that their money would be more effectively spent if some was shifted away from bursaries into outreach, Offa "would be wholly supportive of that".
Offa asked institutions to report only on spending on bursaries and scholarships for students with a household income of less than £49,305. But 79 per cent of bursary expenditure went to those students from a household with an income of less than £25,000, Offa said.