A future in which the academy as we know it is dissolved and scholars are forced to become "celebrities" to keep their jobs has been described in a paper predicting potential developments over the next 25 years.
Academics from the University of Hertfordshire said that university leaders and policymakers should act now to prevent their predictions from becoming a reality.
The paper, Scenarios for the Future of the HE Sector: Where Will We Be in 25 Years' Time?, is written by Eddie Blass, senior lecturer in higher education, Anne Jasman, reader in education, and Steve Shelley, principal lecturer in human resource management. It describes five "extreme possibilities" that are "probable according to policy decisions made by governments now".
The authors add that the paper, presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education conference in South Wales last week, uses "provocative language to evoke an emotional response".
In the first scenario, debt aversion following the credit crunch obliterates the undergraduate market in favour of part-time further education. Universities concentrate on postgraduates and the academy "shrinks back to ancients and redbricks". A new "professional" academic role develops to manage knowledge transfer and secure cash.
In the second vision, disciplines divide as business drives funding. The sector splits into "pure providers", which account for just 20 per cent of staff and 10 per cent of students, and "applied" ones that work more closely with industry. Academics may move from pure to applied institutions, but rarely in the other direction.
In the third model, regional universities dominate and "the role of the academic is lower status and less specialised" than now.
The fourth scenario sees the withdrawal of state funding from higher education, leaving students to fund themselves. Academics are expected to generate enough income to sustain their positions: as a result, "a celebrity culture develops".
Finally, the paper suggests a future in which "societal unrest arises in response to the decline of the education system". As a result, a 2 per cent education tax is introduced, paying for free undergraduate education for all. The sector expands, becoming "the envy of other nations", but there is a price to pay as concepts of quality and student satisfaction converge.
The authors say the scenarios may help the sector to come up with ways to prevent them from occurring.
"The paper challenges the current discourse, offering alternatives that place us somewhere on a continuum from the 'elitist' provision that history maps to a 'popularist' corporate provision that contradicts the very idea of the university itself," they write.