Universities have launched a bidding war for the brightest students with rival grants of up to £5,000 a year, it emerged yesterday.
Students will be offered laptop computers, travel passes and even free bikes as incentives to apply to different universities from 2006.
Sir Martin Harris, the higher education access watchdog, said it was clear a "market" had now opened up as universities sought to attract undergraduates from poor backgrounds.
The details emerged as more than 100 universities and colleges were given the green light to charge students top-up tuition fees of £3,000 a year next year.
Any universities which want to charge higher fees from 2006 must first reach an "access agreement" with Sir Martin, and show that they will do their best to make sure poor students are not put off applying.
Sir Martin, director of the Office for Fair Access to higher education, said universities had gone a long way towards achieving this.
"I think that there is enough money now for us to be able to say with some confidence that students should not be deterred on financial grounds from seeking entry into universities," he said.
He said there was a "wide variety" of student support packages totalling £300 million being planned from 2006.
"It is perfectly clear that the market between institutions has emerged principally in student support rather than fees," he said.
About 35 per cent of universities are setting up new scholarships to attract the brightest students, worth between £500 and £5,000.
While some are designed only for bright students from poor backgrounds, two-thirds of these scholarships will be awarded purely on academic merit.
As expected, elite universities were among the most generous in their schemes to help poorer students.
Cambridge, Oxford and Durham will all be offering bursaries of £3,000 for the poorest students.
Oxford said this would mean there was "little or no need" for these students to take out loans.
All students whose families were on a combined income of less than £33,500 will benefit in some way, the university said.
Cambridge promised that its principal "milestone" would be to take on more pupils from state schools in future.
Education Secretary Ruth Kelly welcomed the "very positive" commitment from universities and colleges to making sure students were not put off for financial reasons.
"The sheer strength, scale and variety of the bursary schemes on offer is very impressive," she said.