Vice-chancellors hold their annual meeting in Manchester next week. Tony Tysome reports.
British universities are facing "very serious challenges" from global and corporate competitors, vice-chancellors will be warned.
Institutions cannot afford to ignore new virtual and "mega" worldwide universities, says a Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' briefing paper.
Big online institutions, such as the Western Governors University in the United States, are poised to cash in on widening global participation in higher education. Private corporate providers such as the British Aerospace Virtual University have huge development budgets.
High-quality institutions offering fully accredited distance learning, such as the University of Phoenix in Arizona, are starting to lead lucrative markets such as business and management.
Lessons from the United States show that "once for-profit providers gain a foothold in an education market, the risk to non-enterprise-like, more traditionally organised providers rapidly escalates", the paper says.
Vice-chancellors will be asked how universities should respond and possibly launch a research project. Diana Warwick, CVCP chief executive, said: "The sector needs to be aware of these developments and to recognise that they represent a competitive challenge."
The paper recommends collaboration, saying: "Universities need to consider how they can exploit resources created by the new knowledge providers, which may be more rewarding than being drawn into direct competition."
On widening participation, vice-chancellors will also be asked to decide whether to set institutional targets. If they agree, it will be a departure from the CVCP's usual policy of leaving institutions strictly to their own devices. The CVCP is holding a conference on the issue and to launch the findings of a survey of best practice on November 2.
l The challenges posed by Scottish and Welsh devolution will be part of a general debate on regionalism. Scottish and Welsh institutions will need to consider their position in relation to the new national ruling bodies, and to the CVCP, Ms Warwick said. Vice-chancellors will also discuss how institutions will work with the new regional development agencies.
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