Two former cabinet ministers have accused universities of acting "like a cartel" by blocking tuition fees reform.
They are backing a report which calls for university degrees to be cut down to two years instead of three, to ease the debt burden on students.
Tory Owen Paterson and former Labour minister Lord Adonis blasted universities for failing to innovate and improve teaching while reaping the benefits of increased fees.
The report, by Paterson's UK2020 think-tank, claimed the biggest winners from the current system had been university vice-chancellors, whose pay and perks now average almost £280,000.
In a joint foreword to the report, Mr Paterson and Lord Adonis backed the original concept of charging tuition fees, saying they were meant to put universities on a more independent financial footing.
In return, universities were supposed to deliver better teaching, innovate and compete.
The report argued the introduction of two year courses would help "defuse the ticking timebomb of student discontent" about the cost and quality of courses.
The report said total student debt would reach £1 trillion in cash terms by the 2040s, with the taxpayer picking up the bill for unpaid loans "with universities bearing none of the risk, even if they have overpriced their degrees".
English students are "the most indebted in the world", owing on average £50,000 by the time the graduate - although the report acknowledged that the system meant no upfront fees and lower repayments than the old regime.
Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of private institution Buckingham University, said: "The traditional model of three years at university, with wide open spaces of time when academics are writing and students are left to their own devices, is becoming a relic of the past."
He said Buckingham had pioneered two-year courses four decades ago and "their time has now come", arguing the intense pace was "more like the workplace".