Graduates would only have to give up two pints of beer a week to repay their top-up fees, according to the leader of the country's university vice-chancellors.
The comments by Professor Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK, in an interview with The Independent, were immediately seized on by student leaders as "trivialising" the issue.
Professor Crewe, the vice-chancellor of Essex University, said: "A graduate who starts off at £18,000 a year in London will be paying back £5.30 a week - which is a couple of pints of beer.
"Now most students could afford a couple of pints of beer when they were students, so they can afford to pay back a couple of pints after graduating."
Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, said: "We're disappointed that the new president of Universities UK has singularly failed to grasp the issue of student debt, as students from his own university have taken part in protests against fees and student hardship.
"He has trivialised student hardship - the repercussions of which continue into graduates' working lives, stopping them from contributing to pensions, being able to leave the parental home and getting on to the property ladder."
At the Universities UK conference next week, Professor Crewe and the Higher Education minister, Alan Johnson, will promote the higher education package - which aims to bring in top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year by 2006 - in the face of increasing public scepticism.Reuse content