Students are to launch a "consumer revolution" against a sector that is unprepared for the consequences of marketisation and high fees.
The National Union of Students has demanded that sector-owned quangos be replaced by tough new regulators with the power to protect students from "collusion" on fee levels and to impose "genuine penalties" for malpractice and maladministration.
With students let down by politicians and the "deafening silence" of most vice-chancellors on the issue of the cuts facing the academy, Aaron Porter, the NUS president, said the union had no choice but to "completely change" its approach.
The Browne Review had ushered in an "era of sticks and not carrots", he said.
Addressing a conference of sector leaders in London last week, Mr Porter said he took no pleasure in delivering his message and would continue to fight for an "alternative vision".
However, he feared that time was running out.
"If we face into the cold and unforgiving winds of a substantially free market, I will not allow students to be let down by weak regulation permissive of misbehaviour and unfair practices," he said.
If Parliament votes for higher tuition fees, he would seek to bring about "a consumer revolution in higher education".
This would mean a "totally changed structure and remit" for the Quality Assurance Agency, which in its current form could not deal with the "cut and thrust" of the new market.
"I don't want national bodies telling universities what they should teach or how...but I do want an independent organisation giving students and applicants an independent opinion of the quality of what's on offer," he said.
"The idea of a principal part of the accountability machinery being 'sector-owned' has had its day as far as I'm concerned. Do the water companies own Ofwat? Do the broadcasters own Ofcom? Of course they don't, and it would be absurd if they did. It needs a total change of direction."
A national student charter must set down "enforceable minimum standards" and a new watchdog must examine market practice in the sector - and have the power to refer matters to the Office of Fair Trading or the Competition Commission, he proposed.
"Ranging from high-level action such as preventing collusion on price, to examining prospectuses and other advertising for accuracy and fairness in what they represent and promise, there will be a desperate need for this form of scrutiny," he said.
Students must also be given the legal right to move to another university if they discover they have been "misled by the market" and a money-back guarantee, he said.
"Serious penalties" for universities that fail to make progress on widening participation must not be merely promised but actually delivered, added Mr Porter, who said the government's plans would "utterly and irreversibly transform" the relationship between universities and their students.
Independence is a must
Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, backed Mr Porter's proposals.
"We need a body that is independent of everybody, including the government; which reports to Parliament, not government; and which provides an annual report on quality and standards in higher education," he said.
Peter Williams, the former head of the QAA, said: "Now that education, and higher education in particular, has been turned into part of the retail sector, it is natural that students will see themselves as nothing more than shoppers."
But Mr Williams added that consumer protection would not come cheap.
"Ofcom comes in at more than £120 million (a year). The QAA - indeed owned by the sector, but by no means controlled by it - is a snip in contrast at £11 million."
Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, said the NUS had for some time been at the "forefront" of promoting the idea that consumer consciousness was the defining identity of students.
"Consumer consciousness encourages a conflict of interest between student and teacher," he said. "Such conflict will promote a free-for-all that can only have destructive outcomes for education."
DEVIL IN THE DETAIL: 3% INTEREST WHILE STUDENTS STUDY
Students face being charged the maximum interest rate of 3 per cent on their loans while they are still at university, it has emerged.
In addition, the threshold for loan repayments of £21,000 will be increased with earnings only every five years and will be set from 2016 - when the figure will be worth about £19,000 in 2012 prices.
Details of the small print of the government's proposals emerged after the Institute for Fiscal Studies was given key information to help it assess the modelling of plans. It was forced to change its assessment after the disclosures altered its original assumptions.
Lorraine Dearden, a research Fellow at the IFS, said the system was less progressive as a result, with graduates paying more across the board.
She added that it would also still cost the taxpayer billions of pounds when compared with Lord Browne's proposals owing to the larger subsidies needed to fund the write-off of student debt.
Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, described the 3 per cent charge while students are studying as "totally unfair...This would lead to the government profiting from students."
After graduating, students will be charged 3 per cent only if they earn over £41,000 a year.
The IFS also calculates that the teaching grant will be cut by 80 per cent.