Ireland's seven universities have been told that they need to re-position themselves as a strong system and not just a collection of separate institutions.
They have also been warned that the anticipated drop of 36 per cent in school-leaver numbers, from 74,000 in 1998 to 47,000 in 2012, poses an immediate threat to the position of tertiary education.
A report, commissioned by the Higher Education Authority and the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities, says that while there is no threat to the survival of any of the Irish universities, major changes in orientation and style are necessary.
The University Challenged , by Malcolm Skilbeck, former Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development deputy director for education, warns that the alternative to positive action on a number of fronts is not the maintenance of the status quo, but a steady decline and loss of authority, influence and resources.
The report says the universities need to review and appraise policies, structures, practices and capabilities with reference to the national directions being set in a succession of strategy documents, reports and policy initiatives.
It says universities need to broaden and enlarge student intake. Instead of a battle developing for a diminishing number of school leavers, the changing demographic provides an opportunity to increase the proportion of school leavers entering tertiary education, but not necessarily as full-time students. The report says entry routes into tertiary education should be diversified; opportunities for open and flexible learning should be provided for adults; more overseas fee-paying students should be recruited; and the numbers on postgraduate and post-experience professional programmes should be increased.
"For the universities, the challenge now is to show a readiness to work collectively as a system, in tandem with the institutes of technology sector, and the secondary schools," the report says.
It calls for stronger links with industry and community organisations and says there is a need to respond to the rapidly changing economic environment through outreach schemes in all subjects and fields of study.
These could include such elements as work and community experience as a part of all degree programmes, business-university fora, more sponsorship of scholarships by industry, joint research projects and further progress in the area of start-up companies.
Don Thornhill, the HEA's chairman, said: "The days of the old certainties in our universities of a largely homogeneous student body and delivery systems are gone. It is essential that the new challenges now facing the system are addressed."