Universities and colleges without clearly defined missions are at risk of going bust, Sir David Watson, director of the University of Brighton, warned this week in a publication to mark the third anniversary of the Dearing report.
"There were a lot of critics who expected Dearing to set up a new stratified structure for higher education, but it went for evolution. That evolution may well have become a bit stuck. There is a brutal Darwinian solution to our economic problems - survival of the fittest," said Sir David, a member of the Dearing committee.
Universities and colleges must get together to create a planned complementary mission - with or without government help - Sir David argued in the pamphlet, which he published with a colleague, Rachel Bowden.
"It would be in the spirit of Dearing for there to be fewer universities, greater mission differentiation, a restored international reputation and more satisfying careers for staff. At the mid-term stage, the prospects for harmonious and effective sectoral re-organisation remain bleak," the pamphlet concluded.
Sir David highlighted how economic difficulties had forced the sector to fall back on recruiting more "traditional" entrants - middle-class, young pupils with A levels - between 1995 and 1998.
He identified three characteristics that could account for the shift towards admitting more middle-class students. He said: "It could have something to do with the perceived benefit of higher education by the top social groups; it may have to do with the slowing down of the pace of innovation in higher education; and it may have something to do with the unturbulent acceptance of tuition fees."
Yet the government is looking to universities to deliver on social policies, such as widening participation by under-represented groups. It is trying to foist them on universities by making them bid for and justify their funding in competitive exercises, many of which are unsuccessful. These bids waste time and money, both of which are scarce, Sir David said.
"One message that wasn't fully absorbed from the Dearing report was the need to reduce transaction costs," he added.
Sir David said that work should begin earlier to widen participation by under represented groups and that universities work with schools to achieve this.
After Dearing: A mid-term report, by Sir David Watson and Rachel Bowden, published by the Education Research Centre at the University of Brighton.