Ministers face a public backlash unless they heed warnings about for-profit universities and colleges, the president of the National Union of Students has said.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Liam Burns said that the coalition government risked widespread anger once taxpayers realised that public funds would go into the hands of private companies via subsidised student loans.
"The fight that David Willetts is going to have very soon is one that says: 'Our universities are not for sale,'" he predicted. "The idea that private [providers] are going to walk in and take public funding with no extra scrutiny will fall flat.
"I think there will be an NHS moment when people realise: 'Hang on, what do you mean we are giving public money to bodies [that] are explicitly about their shareholders and profits?'"
Almost 500,000 people signed a petition last year against the government's Health and Social Care bill. Health professionals and unions warned that the NHS reforms would allow private firms to "cherry-pick" profitable areas of treatment, risking the future of local hospitals.
The bill was eventually passed by the House of Commons last September after a three-month "listening exercise" and significant changes.
Mr Burns questioned why the universities and science minister wanted to make radical changes to the UK academy.
"We have got arguably one of the best university systems in the world. We are efficient and we punch above our weight on the world stage," he said. "So people will ask what Willetts is trying to fix.
"He has started very early saying he is not trying to Americanise the system. That is because there is not much evidence on how privatisation benefits the sector - and a lot of evidence on how it doesn't."
The NUS president added that when the higher education bill goes before Parliament, probably in late spring or early summer, Mr Willetts would have "a tough job in convincing politicians of all colours and the public why this is a good idea...If it's about volume, he should put in more money."
He said that the NUS would push for more safeguards to protect students at private colleges because many questions remain unanswered.
"Is there a compulsion to have a student union?" he asked. "What recourse will students have if things go wrong? Will these [colleges] be subject to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator or the Quality Assurance Agency, as everyone else is? Will these providers be subject to the same indicators around key information sets and access agreements?
"To be honest, I don't think you can build a compelling business case once you factor in all these things if your business is for-profit."
He also called on the government to establish a "safety net" for students at private colleges to ensure they would not lose out if providers suddenly withdrew from the market.