Scottish labour leader Iain Gray has intervened to urge the Scottish Funding Council not to remove support it gives to universities to retain students from deprived areas.
The council is proposing to remove the "widening access retention premium" (warp) from four universities in the 2010-11 academic year. They are Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt and St Andrews universities, which received a total of pound;655,000 this year.
The SFC argues that they have small numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and it believes the additional premium should be concentrated where it is most needed.
But Mr Gray said this was a "backward step" and the council should re- think it. Claire Baker, Labour's spokesperson for further and higher education, said the fact that these four institutions had relatively low numbers from deprived areas was a reason for the funding council to help them to improve on that position.
An SFC spokesman made the point that its move is about retaining students once they get to university, not access. The four universities have low drop-out rates, and the proposal is to target money on the universities which have the most work to do.
The council would be holding discussions with those affected before any final decision was taken, he added. Warp funding is worth pound;10,475,000 to the 19 higher education institutions this year.