The final shape of the National Scholarship Programme is "risible" and will fail to reach at least three-quarters of students on a full maintenance grant, it has been claimed.
Leaders of the National Union of Students said details of the scheme, announced last week alongside the government's guidance to the Office for Fair Access, would be "baffling" to applicants and said the way it was being sold by ministers was "despicable".
Plans for a National Scholarship Programme were announced in December, days before the House of Commons vote on raising the fee cap to £9,000. They were key to attempts to make the package more palatable to Liberal Democrat MPs.
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, suggested that children on free school meals could get up to two free years at university under the "ambitious" proposals, with institutions asked to match government funding, which will total £50 million in 2012-13 and will rise to £150 million two years later.
However, over the following weeks, aspects of the scheme began to unravel as some sector leaders expressed worries about the amount of money being pledged by the government and the costs that would be imposed on universities.
The scheme - which institutions charging more than £6,000 must sign up to - will now apply only to students studying in their first year and universities can decide which poor students will qualify.
The benefits offered can also be split between a "menu" of options - fee waivers, discounts on accommodation, a free foundation year and bursaries of £1,000 or less - provided the total value is at least £3,000 per person.
Crucially, the number of scholarships available will not be determined by a national benchmark. Instead, scholarship places will be allocated to each university according to its size rather than how many students it has from poor backgrounds.
In a briefing note to students, Aaron Porter and Usman Ali, president and vice-president of the NUS, claim that the government had been "misleading" by giving the impression that most students from poor backgrounds would receive help.
"We are really disappointed by the information on the National Scholarship Programme and believe that the proposals are risible," they say. "We believe that the information will be baffling for many applicants and that the number of students able to benefit from the scheme is far too low."
The note goes on to claim that more than 75 per cent of students on full maintenance grants may not receive NSP payments, given the limited amount of money the government is planning to spend.
"The truth is that this is a woefully inadequate scheme - only available to a small proportion of those students from low-income backgrounds and only in their first year," the NUS briefing says.
According to the Million+ group, there is also the potential for students from the European Union being eligible for fee waivers if they are offered by universities.