University fears over grant cuts
Universities fear they will not be able to charge tuition fees high enough to replace severe losses they are expecting to teaching grants.
Top vice-chancellors fear the government will cut teaching grants to England's universities by 75%.
And the independent Browne review of student funding is widely expected to call for an increase in the graduate contribution.
The government said it could not comment on the claims.
This was because it was not able to speculate on the forthcoming comprehensive spending review while the process continued.
Professor Geoffrey Crossick, vice-chancellor of the University of London and a member of the board of vice-chancellors' body Universities UK, said he and fellow vice-chancellors were not convinced that the losses to funding could be met by higher fees.
He told the BBC: "We know there are going to be very significant reductions in public funding in higher education.
"We also know that the Browne review is going to recommend significant changes in the way that resources flow into universities.
"My real worry is that this is being done at very high speed in the middle of an emergency spending review.
"We do not know whether the higher fee level that will be required to substitute for the funding we are told will be taken away - we do not know that we can deliver that.
"What worries me is that individual institutions may suffer and that one of the very best things that this country has will be damaged irrevocably."
Prof Crossick predicted that 75% of government grants would be taken away from all degree courses and that it ultimately arts, humanities and social sciences would get no teaching funding at all.
His fears were backed by Roehampton University vice-chancellor Paul O'Prey, who is also chairman of UUK's longer term strategy group.
He said he was worried that the higher education system was being dismantled without a clear idea of what would replace it.
"What we are doing, with the current plan to remove a very high percentage of the teaching grant and for universities to replace that with much higher fees, is introducing an economic shock that will privatise university education overnight.
"It's the combination of Browne and the spending review. We are clearly expecting him to say that the graduate contribution will go up.
'Not fit for purpose'
"But my real worry is that if in the spending review they take away most of that, we will have to have a charge of £6,000 to £7,000 just to stand still and not everyone is in a position to pay that."
He suggested that by 2014-15, there would no teaching subsidy for any humanities subjects.
A spokesman for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills said: "While it is good to have wide public debate about future funding options it is also important to be clear that the current system is no longer fit for purpose.
"We need a new funding settlement which promotes world class competitiveness in teaching and research, with better quality for students."
He added: "Lord Browne is currently undertaking a review of university funding and student finance and the and we will judge its proposals against the need to take into account the impact on student debt, ensure a properly funded university sector, improve the quality of teaching, advance scholarship, increase social mobility and attract a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds."
Chief executive of Universities UK Nicola Dandridge said: "There is a real urgency to this matter. Our concern is that potential cuts in the public funding for universities could pose a significant risk to the student experience.
"This could also lead to a contraction of student places and very damaging result for students."