The Fabian Society has sounded a warning note over the involvement of private firms in delivering core services to higher education.
The author of the report, Colin Crouch, professor of sociology at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, questions the value that private companies bring to the provision of services.
He argues that, while private companies perform well in the free market, they are unsuited to working in a world where efficiency for the customer does not necessarily mean satisfaction for the consumer.
Private involvement in student accommodation has become a boom area, with the companies Unite and Jarvis emerging as major players. The companies argue that they provide funds that would otherwise not have been available, allowing universities to concentrate on core activities such as teaching and research.
But some academics warn that student rents will increase as a result.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has helped universities to explore public-private partnerships through its pathfinder programme. It foots up to half the bill for professional costs until a contract is signed. About 30 projects have been supported at a cost of £4.5 million.
Adrian Harvey, deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society, a Labour-affiliated think-tank, said: "There are deep anxieties over the increased involvement of the private sector in education.
"The Fabian Society believes there needs to be a proper debate about the shifting barriers between the private and public sectors. Such a debate should go beyond the question of whether private firms are more efficient than public services."
Commercialisation of Citizenship: Education Policy and the Future of Public Services is published by the Fabian Society this week.