University chiefs have called for a post-Dearing review of the structure of British higher education that could lead to pressure for a new binary divide.
The Standing Conference of Principals, which has been discussing the future role of its member institutions with the Department for Education and Employment, said this week there needed to be a "radical rethink" of the sector.
Patricia Ambrose, SCOP chief executive, said the distinctive nature of different types of institution needed to be better recognised.
of This could mean "more planning, but less regulation", and the introduction of "funding by mission" - a move that might bring about a new binary system.
She said: "If you have a system where it is much clearer that institutions have their own goals, aspirations and excellences, then you need a regulatory framework that recognises that.
"The big question is, would it be a retrograde step to formalise some kind of binary divide, and where would the line fall?"
The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, also considering the future of the sector, immediately distanced itself from the suggestion that a new binary divide should be created. But it acknowledged that discussions about restructuring the sector were taking place and would be considered by its longer-term strategy group.
Tony Bruce, CVCP policy chief, who last month joined a party of university heads and government officials looking at the Wisconsin model of higher education, said there was clear scope for change.
He said: "British universities are quite small by international standards, and we might want to look at whether they would be advanced by organising themselves into bigger units. In that context the emphasis might switch to more collaboration and less duplication."
Ms Ambrose said that the current structure and funding and assessment regimes encouraged institutions to aim for the same goals, leading to academic drift. There needed to be equal rewards for different missions, she said.
"Unless you have a funding and reward system that gives parity of esteem to different types of institution, you end up with the situation where institutions that see themselves as lower down in the hierarchy try to become more like those higher up," she added.