An Oxford academic's warning that widening access to universities will create a "graduate glut" has been dismissed as "ridiculous" by students.
Oxford University could go private, says college president
Michael Beloff, president of Trinity College, said plans to get 50% of young people into higher education would mean "dumbed-down degrees".
He also said Oxford may have to turn independent due to a lack of funding.
But the university's student union said Mr Beloff's comments had been "unhelpful and damaging".
Its president, John Blake, said: "While it is true that the current relationship between the government and universities needs to improve, privatisation of Oxford, or indeed any other university, is simply not a way forward.
"Such a move would cause unprecedented damage to the access scheme on which this student union works so hard, and quite simply the infrastructure in existence at Oxford could not support it."
The government says it wants up to half of young people in England into higher education by 2010.
Speaking at the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference in St Andrews, Mr Beloff said charging top-up fees of £3,000 a year would not be enough to bridge the Oxford University's funding gap.
'Tanks off Oxford'
"It may be that one day Oxford will indeed become independent of government and if and when it does I suspect that government will be duly grateful," he added.
"But if that does happen, every means must be used to ensure that it does not become merely a finishing school for the offspring of the rich."
Mr Beloff dismissed the 50% university access target as owing more to its "attractions as a sound bite than as an
element in a coherent strategy".
Expanding the number of students also risked lowering the standards and value of degrees, he said.
"There's a true danger of dumbed down degrees coinciding with graduate
And he said giving polytechnics the name of university was "an abuse of euphemism".
'Carrot not stick'
Mr Beloff said the new head of the government's Office for Fair Access would be a highly unpopular public official and he criticised targets for admitting a certain proportion of state school pupils.
"Sensible selection involves giving due and intelligent weight to the
relative educational advantages of the candidates.
"But this should not involve any departure from merit as the criterion of
admission, or discrimination in favour of the product of state schools," he
Mr Beloff said the government must take its tanks off Oxford's lawns
He urged the government to use the "carrot, not the stick" to help universities develop schemes for widening access.
"Instead we have the promise or threat of the access regulator who is likely to be the least popular public official since the post of public hangman became
redundant with the abolition of capital punishment," he said.
"The Department for Education and Skills should take its tanks off Oxford's lawns and give us tractors. We need financial help not financial threat."
His words came as the shadow education secretary, Tim Collins, told party members in Bournemouth that "degrees used to have a greater comparative value than now.