Almost a fifth of English universities are to lower their tuition fees to below £7,500 in an attempt to take advantage of extra student places.
It comes only weeks before the application deadline for 2012, and means thousands of those who have already applied could now find their fees have changed.
In total, 24 universities in England plus one further education college have had plans to lower fee levels approved by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA).
But the National Union of Students (NUS) raised concerns that the Government’s attempts to get universities to keep average fees below £7,500 do not benefit students or graduates because they encourage “con trick” fee waivers.
Plans to triple fees to a maximum of £9,000 were approved by MPs in December 2010.
Universities planning to charge more than £6,000 had to submit “access agreements” to OFFA setting out how they planned to support students and ensure those from poorer homes were not priced out.
But in a White Paper published this summer, after institutions had submitted their agreements, Ministers announced that universities who charged average fees of £7,500 or lower would be able to bid for a share of 20,000 so-called “core and margin” places.
To qualify for the places, universities had to have average fees of £7,500 or less after fee waivers had been taken into account.
Fee waivers reduce the amount of money a university asks a student to borrow to cover the cost of their tuition fee.
The NUS argue that students should be allowed to choose bursaries over fee waivers which gives them money in their pocket now to cover university costs.
The 24 universities, all of which are newer institutions, and one college which have reduced overall fee levels include the University of Huddersfield, Leeds Trinity University College and York St John University.
Collectively, these institutions will now be investing an extra £37.4m in fee waivers, but £13.8m less in bursaries and scholarships.
Director of Fair Access Sir Martin Harris said: “What we have seen is that in addition to reducing their headline fees by £16.3m, institutions have also significantly increased fee waivers.
“In short, money is not just being moved from one pot to another, there’s also additional investment, particularly in fee waivers, so reducing the net costs for some students.”
But he added: “As we expected, some institutions have chosen to move money out of bursaries and into fee waivers, so enabling them to reduce their net average fee.
“Importantly, there has been no net reduction in the overall financial support for any student. However, bursaries and fee waivers are not the same thing.
“Bursaries are money in a student’s pocket now whereas fee waivers reduce a loan that some students may not need to repay in full.
“We don’t yet know which will prove more effective in terms of supporting and protecting access and retention.”
NUS president Liam Burns said: “Fee waivers are a con trick that will only benefit graduates who are earning enough to pay off their student loans within 30 years.
“They help the Treasury, who have to spend less on loans, but are of no benefit to students whatsoever.”