After the 1990s, when polytechnics wanted to be Oxbridge, we face the zeroes, when ancient universities will try to be polytechnics. That, at least, is the message Sir David Watson and others will give at a conference next week on university collaboration.
To institutions with an eye on government plans to widen participation and expand student numbers, this must seem an obvious development. Universities with lower costs that concentrate on teaching will have built-in advantages over smaller-scale operators with higher ambitions. One possible result - fewer, but bigger, universities - is already presaged by cautious manoeuverings in Birmingham and eastern Scotland, and by rumblings about the need for fewer institutions in Wales. Sir Howard Newby, future head of English higher education funding, approves of the idea. If there is a trend towards city-scale university mergers, driven by student numbers, expansion and cost-cutting, the older, more prestigious, university could turn out to be the junior partner.
But there are grounds for caution about the idea that universities are going to become homogenised mass institutions. Many will not. Fee-paying students will pay for distinctiveness, as small, teaching-intensive, high-fee universities in the United States show. In the UK, top-up fees would allow high-priced, small universities to exist alongside big mass-market ones. The National Audit Office review of expansion and dropout rates may also conclude that expansion by widening access is less straightforward than politicians care to admit. Reputations can suffer if dropout rates also increase.
Critics of widening access may be wrong to equate a broader student body with less talented students. Lower pass rates may rather relate to poorer students having a tougher cash struggle. Research may also show variation in student success between institutions. Improving the performance of less successful universities will mean spending more, mainly on staff but also on libraries, information technology and other resources.
British universities are ill-placed for restructuring based on higher student numbers. The cult of the research assessment exercise drives academic behaviour more powerfully than student expansion. But while these two pressures have different effects, they have one thing in common. Making the most of scarce resources points to mergers as a solution to both problems.