The universities and science minister encouraged UK institutions to create stock market-listed subsidiaries that can offer educational services to rapidly growing higher education systems such as that of Indonesia.
In London on 17 October at the conference Exporting Excellence: Capitalising on the Global Value of UK Education, Mr Willetts said that emerging economies needed an "education offer" from the UK that was "seriously ambitious".
This might involve expertise in developing campuses, training academics, providing student accommodation or creating internationally recognised qualifications, he said.
Most UK universities were run along a charitable, trustee model, where governors aimed to "pass it on in something like this form ... to the next generation".
"That is a perfectly legitimate model for running a university," Mr Willetts said, acknowledging that this was the model under which most universities would continue to be run.
But he added that the trustee model "isn't really relevant when the Indonesians come and say: 'We have 250,000 extra undergraduates a year; how are you going to help?' It's not relevant for that kind of massive educational and business opportunity."
For this kind of expansion into emerging markets "you need flows of capital, and it's hard to see how that can be publicly financed".
"You need some of the classic features of a commercial organisation, and it's fair to say that Pearson (the education and publishing giant) is our biggest single educational export business," Mr Willetts said.
Universities could adopt an "enterprise" model or they could try to combine the "enterprise" model with a trustee set-up.
"You can have an enterprise, [stock market] quoted, limited company subsidiary of a trustee model university," he speculated.
"We need to create some space in our British higher education sector for that enterprise model to flourish," Mr Willetts told delegates.