Diversity in higher education is under threat from financial pressures, political interference and short-term planning, a report has warned.
Diversity and Excellence , published by the Council for Industry and Higher Education, says that diversity in student intake, institutional mission and in teaching and research are essential in a sector that is aiming to widen participation and access.
But according to the report's author, Baroness Perry, president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, there is a danger that institutions will be penalised for helping to maintain diversity.
She says: "Politicians must recognise that it will serve the student and the nation very badly if they force all universities into a single measured mould, whereby inevitably some remain permanently at the top and others remain permanently at the bottom, with no consideration given to their different mission."
Baroness Perry says that the sector must be set free from "political preoccupations with words like 'mass' and 'elite'", because neither are accurate descriptions of the system.
She says: "It is a system providing for half or more of the population in due time, but still not a mass system; nor is it the elite system which we had for the first eight decades of the 20th century.
"Within it, differentiation is appropriate and right, provided that within such differentiation all institutions are open to all who are qualified and wish to enter."
Richard Brown, the CIHE's chief executive, warns in the report that a greater threat to diversity than government interference is underfunded institutions allowing short-term financial pressure to drive restructuring.
He says: "The sector has expanded at below marginal cost and is now over-trading, under-capitalised and grossly under-funded. Restructuring is in danger of being driven by short-term financial pressures... Without concerted action there will be an erosion of teaching capability, of quality and diversity. Some departments and institutions will just cease to exist or will lose their distinctive features."