Students may increasingly choose a university in much the same way as people opt for designer clothes with the right "label", a former government economics adviser has warned.
Sir Alan Budd, former chairman of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee and former professor of economics at the London Business School, said that image could count for more than substance, to the potential detriment of graduates.
Sir Alan, provost of Queen's College, Oxford, said: "If particular universities provide a label that commands a high value in the labour market, then that may be more important than the educational experience itself."
Sir Alan, who gave the first Anthony Crosland Memorial Lecture at Sheffield University on Tuesday, questioned the government's attempt to create a market in higher education by concentrating research funding and cash for widening participation.
He said: "This is a future in which not only research resources but also teaching resources are likely to be unequally distributed between universities. There are a number of questions that come to mind. Will the concentration of research resources increase the differences already perceived between the qualities of different universities? Will students be prepared to pay more to attend a university with a strong reputation in research?"
Sir Alan attacked the government for reducing the debate on higher education to one of crude economics, saying there was a risk of losing sight of universities' human and civilising values.
He said: "I recognise that much university activity, both teaching and research, produces great economic benefits. I also recognise that the maintenance of a high and rising level of economic prosperity depends on a well-educated workforce, including graduates from vocational and non-vocational courses.
"But that is not the only - or even the primary - function of universities."