Elite Russell Group universities could help only about 2,500 students through bursary schemes should differential fees be introduced, a THES survey reveals.
A number of Russell Group universities have recently rushed to set up bursary funds - but in some cases these support as few as ten students. Some institutions, including Imperial College, London, and Leeds University, have no central bursary scheme.
A few Russell Group universities indicated that they were reluctant to set up central schemes because they would mean implicit acceptance of tuition fees.
The Russell Group is understood to be split between universities that want an active and united approach towards charging higher fees and those that are not yet ready to go in this direction.
Oxford University said it would carry out an internal consultation in the autumn looking at funding options that range from the loss of the entire teaching grant to a more limited form of top-up fee.
Oxford has raised about £2 million for the Oxford bursaries fund and has begun a fundraising programme to increase this to £1 billion. The bursaries will help about 400 students this coming academic year, and the university has seen an 18 per cent rise in applications for 2002-03.
Cambridge University's bursary scheme is the UK's largest. Its Isaac Newton Trust, which awarded undergraduate bursaries totalling £1 million in 2001-02, helped 1,500 students with up to £1,000 a year. Oxbridge colleges also have their own programmes.
The London School of Economics wants to raise £10 million through its Campaign for LSE.
Newcastle University is asking alumni to fund 85 bursaries this year. Warwick University alumni are funding 115 undergraduate scholarships worth £2,000 a year as of October. Nottingham has raised £4 million, which will fund scholarships worth £4,000 a year.
Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, said: "Harvard University has an endowment of £20 billion, which is two-and-a-half times that of all British universities combined. UK universities cannot raise that sort of money privately. There has to be government support for poor students."