Maxwell Irvine, Birmingham University's departing vice-chancellor, has called the government's policies on higher education funding "a disaster", writes Tony Tysome.
The sector faces trouble unless much more money is provided quickly for staff and students, said Professor Irvine, who leaves his post this month after five years.
Academic salaries have become "laughable" and the number of talented graduates deciding to continue their studies is falling as they struggle to pay their debts, he said.
Professor Irvine, who wrote to prime minister Tony Blair last year to express his concerns, said institutions were being prevented from helping to resolve the crisis.
Meaningful pay rises for staff and bursaries or scholarships for students were impossible because institutions had been tied into a "funding straitjacket" that did not allow for diversity in the sector and differential fees, he said.
Professor Irvine said he regretted that Birmingham's attempt to merge with Aston University had failed, because both would have benefited. But he added: "I think the talks with Aston will be revisited - there is an inevitability about it."
Professor Irvine plans to resume his research in physics at the University of Manchester.