The mantra that universities must focus on "distinctiveness" and "difference" to survive in an increasingly competitive market may have to be watered down, because collaboration and rationalisation lie at the heart of the sector's future.
That was the message from Ewart Wooldridge, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, who was due to speak at the Association of University Directors of Estates' annual conference in Newport, South Wales, this week.
Speaking to Times Higher Education before the event, he warned that "160 institutions in higher education across the UK cannot all be distinctive and different".
"The challenge is both to think about how to compete effectively, but also to collaborate or indeed anticipate rationalisation in some parts of the sector," Mr Wooldridge said.
Forecasting tough times ahead, particularly in public funding over the next two to four years, he said that higher education institutions would need to "drive greater value" from their assets.
"By now, every institution should be deeply into scenario planning and conducting an internal debate about their future positioning ... thinking the unthinkable, testing the possibilities of quite different success models and partnerships," he said.
With this in mind, the Leadership Foundation was poised to launch a major research project to study the business models available to institutions, Mr Wooldridge said, adding that university leaders would have to prove their worth in two key areas if the sector was to prosper despite the economic gloom and doom.
"The first is about the skills of building partnerships across complex organisational boundaries ... Second, there will be the need for an increased willingness for senior leaders to engage with technology as a strategic issue," he said.