Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, spoke out amid sector-wide concern over Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures released this week, accusing the coalition government of "spending virtually nothing" to promote the new student finance system.
The Ucas figures show that the number of English applicants for higher education courses starting in 2013 is down 6.5 per cent on 2012, and 14.2 per cent on 2011.
Mr Rammell said that "for a generation under successive governments", participation rates had increased despite the introduction of fees.
He added: "That's because there was a relentless message about the benefits and affordability of going to university.
"The risk now is that we are at a societal turning-point. The generation-long understanding of the benefits of HE could be ebbing away. It's like a super tanker turning. Once started, it gains momentum."
Application levels had been expected to bounce back for 2013, after dipping in 2012 when fees were introduced.
"Bluntly, the bounce-back isn't happening," said Mr Rammell, who warned that the "message about a fairer, more affordable repayment system hasn't got through".
And he added: "As HE minister, I presided over the introduction of the then new fees regime...We spent £8 million a year on a communications campaign. The present government is spending virtually nothing on promoting the new system.
"We need a government-led, university sector-backed communications campaign to promote the benefits and affordability of university. Universities could fund it if the government would take a lead."
Mr Rammell argued that the new system "is not debt but a postgraduate repayment system", and added: "For the individual, access to university is one of the most personally liberating opportunities in life. Economically there is a huge link between HE participation and prosperity and economic growth."