A former senior adviser to Bill Clinton will this month warn that the core role of universities as centres of free inquiry is being "corrupted" as market forces take hold in higher education.
Robert Reich, who served as President Clinton's labor secretary, will tell academic leaders that pressure to raise private income transformed American universities "from a public good into a private commodity".
The comments come as the bill to introduce variable tuition fees in the UK moves through Parliament. Ministers have often hailed the US academic sector as a model of excellence for the UK.
Professor Reich will take "the destruction of public higher education in America and how the UK can avoid the same fate" as his theme for the annual Higher Education Policy Institute lecture at the Royal Institution on March 25.
Professor Reich told The Times Higher that competition for the best undergraduates was prompting US universities to spend scarce resources building "luxurious student accommodation" while passing on the cost in increased fees - making it harder for poorer students.
Professor Reich, who lectures at Brandeis University, said: "Professors in disciplines whose graduates get higher-paying jobs (such as economics) are paid far more than professors in disciplines whose graduates are paid less (literature), and the gap is widening, with the result that university faculties are coming to be less 'collegial' institutions and more loose affiliations of free agents."
He added: "Higher education in America is being transformed from a public good to a private commodity, and the very nature and meaning of higher education is narrowing dangerously."
Meanwhile, rebel Labour MPs are plotting their next attempt to "kill" the higher education bill by engineering a Commons vote on proposals to allow universities to vary their tuition fees. After scrutiny in committee, Labour rebels may target the clauses about variable fees - in the hope that ministers will withdraw the bill if powers to vary fees are lost.
The Liberal Democrats succeeded in making the only amendment to the bill in committee, when the government accepted that the secretary of state should have less of a say over what should constitute access agreements between universities and the Office for Fair Access.