Women and older people will be hardest hit by the withdrawal of £100 million in state funding for students taking second degrees, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The funding council's assessment of the impact of the withdrawal of money for ELQs - qualifications at an equivalent or lower level than those that students already hold - will have a "negative differential impact on women".
The worst effects had been softened to some extent by the exemption of some subjects from the cuts but, even after mitigation, 7.2 per cent of female students are studying for a non-exempt ELQ, compared with an average of 6.8 per cent of all students.
An initial funding council analysis, carried out last autumn, had suggested that women would not be unfairly disadvantaged by the policy.
The cuts are also likely to have a disproportionate effect on older students because they are more likely to be studying for an ELQ, reported Hefce, explaining: "For instance, 18.1 per cent of students over the age of 40 are studying for a non-exempt ELQ."
Ethnic minority students will not suffer disproportionately.
"Our exemptions and protections have already reduced the impact on all student groups ... It would not be possible to further mitigate the effects, particularly while making the savings required by the Government," Hefce concluded.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Equality Challenge Unit, said: "The Government's policy on ELQs may well disadvantage older women wanting to requalify and upskill, perhaps returning to work after bringing up a family. It is difficult to see the logic in disadvantaging this group of people. It conflicts with the Government's lifelong learning agenda, and is potentially discriminatory both on the grounds of age and gender."