Vice chancellors came under a surprise attack this week from Liberal Democrats urging a tougher high-profile stand against the Teaching and Higher Education Bill.
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat further and higher education spokesman, condemned as "wholly wrong" the "softly, softly" tactics he believes the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals has adopted in its campaign against key clauses in the bill.
Mr Willis, unveiling proposed amendments to the bill which is expected to enter its committee stage in the House of Lords in two weeks, said he was amazed university heads appeared unaware and unmoved by the scale of the threat facing the sector.
He warned that unless certain clauses were amended institutions would have no choice but to impose further education-style staff contracts to squeeze more out of stretched resources.
The CVCP said its protests have already won a promise from education minister Baroness Blackstone that there would be an amendment to clause 18 of the bill, which would give the education secretary highly prescriptive powers to prevent top-up fees.
But Mr Willis said this was not enough to protect the sector from being pushed by the bill into an era of harsh decisions governed by market forces.
His party has tabled an amendment that would force the government, rather than students, to foot the bill for tuition fees, and has joined forces with Conservative peers in drafting an amendment designed to ringfence cash raised through fees for higher education.
"What has amazed us is the attitude of many of the vice chancellors and the CVCP who seem to be obliviously going on in the belief that they are going to do quite well out of changes proposed in the bill," he said.
"I have spoken to the CVCP and I just cannot understand their attitude. They need to wake up and ask what happens if we do not get the money from fees and we are not able to charge top-up fees."
Earl Russell, the Liberal Democrat peer and professor of history at King's College, London, who has tabled an amendment to protect institutions' right to charge top-up fees, said vice chancellors faced a difficult challenge but if pushed they ought to be prepared to close their universities in protest against the bill.
"The CVCP is walking a tightrope and seems almost certain to fall off one side or the other," he said.
A CVCP spokeswoman said pressure from vice chancellors had been acknowledged in Parliament by Baroness Blackstone. She added: "Our message has consistently been that any money from fees should go to higher education."