Employer-friendly initiatives fail to win over business sector, The THES reports
Adopting a "confederacy" model of higher education, where institutions work together and share staff and students without merging, may be the best way to preserve diversity in the sector, says a report from business leaders.
Such a model, which is already beginning to take shape in many areas of the country, allows institutions to keep their identities while pooling resources to improve their academic appeal and become more efficient.
It could provide an answer to the dilemma faced by institutions that are being urged by the government both to play to their strengths and to engage in wider activities, says the report from the Council for Industry and Higher Education.
And it might allow UK higher education to continue to support those institutions that are involved in all three areas of academic activity - research, teaching and widening participation.
The report says that the absence of the more formal stratification of different types of institution that exists in other countries allows the UK sector to continually evolve and be innovative.
"To talk about research-intensive and non-research intensive institutions is to misunderstand the diversity that exists and the evolving spectrum that is UK higher education," it says.
Attempting to maintain diversity by adopting a California-style system, where every institution knows its place, or by merging neighbouring institutions into one, would run the risk of inhibiting innovation and flexibility.
But if institutions collaborate within a confederacy arrangement that might also embrace further education colleges, they can continue to be involved in teaching, research and a range of other related activities.
This kind of system would allow staff and students to move around participating further education and higher education institutions, thus breaking down "old notions of hierarchy" and making widening participation and progression easier to manage.
Low-quality courses could be closed and replaced with courses developed by combining modules from different institutions; facilities, administration, marketing and market intelligence could be shared; and outside organisations such as business and industry could be offered a single point of access to all confederacy institutions.
But the report warns that such partnerships are not a panacea and should not be entered into to hide underlying weaknesses.