Universities that overpromote themselves in the 2006 fee and bursary market and then fail to live up to expectations could struggle to recruit students in the long term, vice-chancellors were told this week.
Rosemary Stamp, of education consultants Euro RSCG Riley, urged vice-chancellors to consider carefully how their universities' marketing pitches would heighten expectations.
She said that unless commitments were closely managed and monitored, the reputation of a university could be undermined and future attempts to recruit home and overseas students and postgraduates could be hindered.
Ms Stamp predicted that students would become increasingly savvy customers who would draw on information from surveys, league tables and institutions'
own literature before making decisions about where to apply.
Once the fee and bursary market is established, students will also be well schooled in how to complain.
Ms Stamp said that some universities were planning "culture and organisation change sessions" to prepare staff for the new market environment. "You make certain promises, you build up expectations and if you don't deliver you end up with problems," she said.
"Imagine students in three years' time. You are going to have savvy people who know what to expect - there will be a lot of information that will tell them about everything from customer support to staff-student ratios."
Ms Stamp's comments come a week after Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access, published the 111 access agreements he has approved.
Only three universities - Greenwich, Thames Valley and Leeds Metropolitan - will charge less than the £3,000 maximum fee. Bursaries will range from the statutory minimum of £300 to £5,000.