The Government was accused of running higher education policy "from Tony Blair's sofa" in a strongly worded critique this week.
Sir David Watson, vice-chancellor of Brighton University, said higher education policy suffered from "extreme volatility".
Giving the inaugural lecture at the University Centre Hastings, an offshoot of Brighton, Sir David said: "The temptation is to conclude that - like the September dossier on weapons of mass destruction and much of the rest of the contemporaneous decision-making about Iraq - (higher education policy) came from Tony Blair's sofa."
Sir David, who leaves Brighton at the end of this academic year for a chair in higher education management at the Institute of Education, described the Department for Education and Skill's 2003 paper Why Not a Fixed Fee? , which formed part of the debate on variable top-up fees, as a "remarkable piece of spin".
Sir David, who is a firm supporter of flat-rate fees, said: "In the Whitehall bubble, the penny didn't drop that fee variability would not correlate with the cost of courses, with the rate of other public funding that students in particular institutions enjoy, nor with the graduate premium earned by individual graduates."
Brighton set up the University Centre Hastings with a number of other universities and colleges including Sussex University and the Open University.
The centre, a key part of an education-led regeneration project for the area, is expected to grow to accommodate 2,000 students over the next few years.