England's top universities should leave the state sector and become private institutions if the government really wants them to compete with the best in America, according to a Scottish principal.
Bernard King, principal of the University of Abertay Dundee, said in a graduation address that ministers were "obsessed" by competing with the US.
"We hear a lot of the excellence of Harvard, Yale and Princeton, but the government forgets to mention that these are immensely rich, privately funded institutions, not impoverished publicly funded institutions like universities in Britain," he said.
Top-up fees would never generate the kind of wealth enjoyed by the leading US universities, Professor King said. Princeton charged annual tuition fees of $40,000 (£23,100), while Harvard had some £19 billion-worth of endowments.
But he said that even if all English universities charged the maximum £3,000, they would raise only a "paltry" £1.5 billion a year.
Professor King added that: "If the government genuinely wants England's best to compete with Harvard and Yale, they must be funded like Harvard and Yale, and that means privatisation. Ministers are misleading the public to suggest otherwise.
"But the government insists in this context that higher education is a public good and will not permit privatisation, directly contradicting its own "private good' argument in favour of a market in top-up fees."
Parents who spent £20,000 or more a year on private school education would consider spending similar sums to send their children to an elite university, Professor King said.