Schools have an increasingly important role to play in preparing pupils to be " customers" of higher education, a teaching union leader said yesterday.
Speaking in Birmingham, Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said tuition fees were transforming the way students viewed themselves.
And with the introduction of top- up fees tripling the amount they are charged, establishment of a consumerled market in the university sector will be even more evident.
"The deferential society we used to have has very largely disappeared," Mr Ward said during the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference at Aston University.
"The introduction of fees has created a tendency for students to regard themselves more as customers and for them to be more discerning and more demanding. "What then matters from the higher education point of view is that it is up to schools to educate pupils to be customers."
Mr Ward said universities could no longer afford to regard themselves as ivory towers.
"Some higher education institutions are rather lordly," he said. "It is as if 'you are allowed in and you are allowed to sit at my foot', rather than 'I need you because you pay my salary'. Increasingly we are moving from the former to the latter. We need to now increase it to a consumer approach but one where the student views are all the more significant."
Ministers have set a target of getting half of all 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education by 2010.
They believe it will be increasingly important for British workers to be trained to graduate level as demand for a highly-skilled workforce among employers grows. The Government is keen to bridge the gap between universities and schools in order to encourage greater participation in higher education - and tackle Britain's high post-16 drop-out rate.
But despite initiatives such as AimHigher - which targets young people from deprived areas - Mr Ward maintained the country still had some way to go towards opening up universities to everyone.
"It is imperative that we address the issue of access and getting to the lower socioeconomic bands," he said.
"We still have an incredibly hierarchal society that leaves some people stranded, left out, trapped in their rural poverty and inner city housing estates with no way forward."
Mr Ward stressed choosing to go to university was the biggest "investment decision" a person would ever make - even bigger than buying a house in terms of life impact.
Universities therefore have to ensure they provided full and open information about themselves to their would-be customers, he said.
This included spelling out areas such as their attitude to students, approach to teaching, teaching capability, how courses are taught, student make-up and the truth about admission policies. "Students deserve to know that the people they are going to are capable of teaching them," said Mr Ward.
Yesterday's conference, entitled Bridging the Gap Between Schools and Higher Education, was attended by Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell.