Generous bursaries, usually offered by the most selective universities, are failing to attract poorer students, research suggests.
A study by the Office For Fair Access (OFFA) reveals that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are not influenced by the size of a bursary on offer when picking universities.
Bursaries to help poorer students were introduced in 2006, the same time as top-up fees came into effect, with the aim of ensuring that this group of youngsters was not put off applying to higher education.
A second aim was to encourage institutions who had more to do to widen the make-up of their intake - usually the more elite universities - to offer bigger bursaries to encourage poorer students to apply and take up a place.
Previous studies have found that generally, students have not been deterred from going to university on financial grounds.
But the findings reveal that disadvantaged youngsters are not more likely to apply to the universities offering the largest bursaries.
In addition, poorer students are not more likely to choose institutions with high financial support packages once they are made the offer of a place.
The study, entitled Have Bursaries Influenced Choices Between Universities?, analysed millions of applications and university choices made by young people.
The report said: "Since the introduction of bursaries, disadvantaged young people - who would be more likely to qualify for bursaries - have increased their participation most rapidly in the third of institutions that offer lower bursaries.
"There have only been small increases for disadvantaged participation in the higher bursary third of institutions and overall young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are no more likely to enter these institutions today than in the mid-1990s."