Universities would be "turned inside-out" and become semi-privatised franchisers of work and community-based education under plans that have impressed the authors behind the government's forthcoming lifelong learning white paper.
The proposals, which include scrapping the traditional academic calendar and breaking down institutional ivory towers, come in a policy paper submitted to the Department for Education and Employment by the Training and Enterprise Council national council.
The paper, Developing a Learning Society: a lifetime of learning, a lifetime of work, has been described as an "outstanding analysis" by John Seymore, the civil servant who is pooling submissions and drafting the white paper.
Resulting legislation is likely to have high priority in the next session of Parliament.
The paper spells out "the big picture" - what a true learning society should look like, said Mary Lord, the paper's key author and director of training and education at the TEC National Council. "We are selling a vision for the next century."
Universities may need to prepare for a radically different role in the future, she said. "Higher education shouldn't just be about institutions. Learning should take place not in ivory tower institutions, but in all sorts of other environments.
"If we are going to take learning to learners, we can't expect individuals to always access through formal institutions. We have to turn the institutions inside-out."
She said that 50 per cent of the workforce should be in formal education each year. Her proposals include a greater commitment from universities to franchise degrees to employers, and to work more closely with their local communities.
"Rather than the traditional role of teacher or instructor," the report said, institutions should move towards designing "customised learning programmes" and providing learning technology and materials to others.