Universities and colleges must face up to the blurring of distinctions between part-time and full-time courses, and between undergraduate and postgraduate education, two professors have told Scottish principals.
Tim O'Shea, pro vice chancellor of the Open University, told the annual conference of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, that he believed that there will be a shift over the next decade to universal higher education.
A diverse body of students will emerge, encompassing those at many different stages in life. Instead of thinking in terms of a three-year undergraduate degree or a one-year masters course, institutions will have to focus much more on students, teaching through modularised credit accumulation and transfer schemes.
Lee Harvey, director of the centre for research into quality at the University of Central England, Birmingham, said a new funding system was needed which would allow students to cash in modular credits, covering both tuition fees and an adequate maintenance grant, when and where they chose.
Students could be given a proportion of a traditional degree, and then borrow credits to be repaid module by module through the tax or national insurance system.
"At the moment, full-time students get the cream, and everybody else in effect pays for that," he said.
Professor Harvey, co-author of a recent report on students' view of funding, said that proposals for a graduate tax failed to match individuals' repayments with their education costs, which meant that someone completing a two-year diploma would pay the same as a medical graduate.
Means-tested student loans relied on continued family support for students while statistics showed that many did not receive their parental contribution, and top-up fees could lead to a multi-tiered system and add to student hardship.
"All these proposals fail to look at what the future shape of higher education will be," Professor Harvey said. The proposals were based on a continuing model of three-year, full-time degrees for 18-year-olds, but a more diverse system would mean scrapping the existing funding arrangements and starting again.
Professor Harvey predicted mergers and federations of higher education institutions in future, with links to further education colleges, research organisations and employers.
"Education will become much more seamless in future," he said.