Welsh Assembly plans to cut student access and hardship funds have been condemned by politicians and student union leaders.
The assembly's planned budget for the next financial year shows a spending cut in access funds from £59 million this year to £43 million in 2004-05.
Money earmarked for access support includes cash for the Assembly Learning Grants - which assembly ministers have trumpeted as a flagship student support initiative - as well as hardship funds.
The cut came as a surprise as the assembly announced a £46 million rise in its overall education budget for next year. This includes an increase of nearly £19 million for higher education and almost £36 million for further education and training. The extra money for higher education amounts to a 5.5 per cent cash boost, allowing Welsh institutions to keep pace with Scotland's 5 per cent rise, but putting them further behind England, which will see a 9 per cent increase next year.
At the same time, the per cent cut in access and hardship funds is twice as large in percentage terms as reductions in England.
The National Union of Students Wales deputy president, James Knight, said the cut "runs contrary to the assembly government's own widening access agenda".
He added: "NUS Wales recognises the numerous positive steps taken by the assembly, not the least of which is the introduction of the Assembly Learning Grant. We also acknowledge the assembly's keen pursuit of the widening access agenda. However, we believe this budget line cut is not reflective of this intention, nor is it in line with previous progressive steps."
Earlier this month, the Welsh Liberal Democrats highlighted a shortfall in the take-up of grants by Welsh students and urged the assembly's education minister, Jane Davidson, to improve the way they are marketed.
Peter Black, Welsh Lib Dem education spokesman, said: "This is a missed opportunity. Labour needs to keep this money available for student access funds."
A spokesman for the assembly said: "We have made very significant resources available for this programme because we wanted to be sure that every eligible student could be funded, but it does not make good financial sense to put more resources in than needed."