Sir David Watson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and principal of Green Templeton College, Oxford, says that the UK is too fixated on copying the higher-profile elements of US provision, such as the Ivy League universities.
Writing in a paper for the Higher Education Policy Institute, Sir David says that the UK must look at how the "other half" of students in the US complete courses: over longer time frames as mature students; by switching between institutions; by dipping in and out of work; and through a mixture of full- and part-time study.
The paper is an extension of his argument - made in a conference speech in December to the Society for Research into Higher Education - that the UK sector was making a series of "category mistakes".
These errors, he argues, include a misguided obsession with comparing individual university performance, a failure to consider further and higher education as two sides of the same coin, and the "myth" that research concentration is needed.
Another problem is the confusion between the "big problem" of widening participation and the "comparatively tiny problem" of fair access to a few highly selective universities, he says, which has led to "empirically weak and socially patronising conclusions" in policy debates.
Discussing the US approach to flexible provision and lifelong learning, he warns that "conservatism, snobbery and lack of imagination" is holding the UK back from realising such approaches, exemplified by the "principal failure" to make credit transfer work.
He says the success of flexible provision in the US meant that "about 60 per cent of the population has a serious experience of tertiary study, and in popular culture 'college' is positively referenced and valued".
But in the UK, he argues, policy, funding and public perceptions of higher education look "to lock in all of the features of the wrong half" of US provision.
"The unsustainable mess we have argued our way into about fees is absolutely characteristic of this," he says.