Ministers have been comprehensively "outspun" in the debate on top-up fees, according to a report published this week.
The study by the Higher Education Policy Institute examins the tuition fee policies of the three main political parties and the demands of Labour dissenters.
It found that the most effective way of subsidising the poor, raising money for universities and minimising the economic impact on the country was the government's existing policy.
But Bahram Bekhradnia, Hepi director, identified problems in the way this policy had been presented.
He said: "The government has allowed itself to be completely out-spun.
Consequently, what should have been a winning formula - higher education free at the point of use, parents no longer paying anything towards their children's... fees and the government paying everything for everybody until they can afford to repay - has been obscured in the language of debt and fees."
By 2010, the government's policy of expecting students to repay tuition fees of up to £3,000 a year after graduation will cost the taxpayer £1.6 billion a year. It will raise £1 billion a year for universities and provide bursaries for poor students worth £500,000 a year.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "The paper shows that government proposals are the most efficient way of raising much- needed extra funding for higher education. Our proposals also increase the freedom of the sector, while the alternatives would increase dependence on the state."
By contrast, maintaining existing tuition-fee levels - as favoured by Labour dissenters - would cost the taxpayer £2.2 billion a year by 2010. This policy would also raise £1 billion a year for universities but would not pay for bursaries.
Similarly, the Liberal Democrat policy to abolish tuition fees would cost the country £2.6 billion a year while raising £1 billion for universities and no bursaries.
Conservative policy to abolish tuition fees while freezing the amount of money going into higher education would cost the taxpayer nothing, but would cut student places by 450,000.