Central control over the higher education sector should be greater, say funding council chiefs.
They want more power to steer universities, higher education colleges and further education colleges into specialisation, collaboration, and in some cases, merger.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has told Sir Ron Dearing's committee of inquiry into higher education that "a greater degree of central intervention" will be necessary to bring about essential changes in the shape and structure of the system.
"The balance between reliance on the market and self interest on the one hand and on planning and direction on the other may need to shift towards a more explicitly interventionist role at the centre, to regulate the market in order to achieve greater diversity and differentiation between institutions and greater cooperation," the council's submission says.
Increased diversity in the student population and growth in numbers will lead to demands for a broader range of provision, Hefce believes. While some large institutions may provide all levels of higher education in a range of subjects, they will have to make a conscious decision to do this and few will excel.
The council's report warns: "Choices will have to be made, requiring institutions to be more focused in their activities and therefore more differentiated from their peers. FE colleges, HE colleges and universities with specific expertise and strengths may emerge more prominently in the future."
Institutions should be encouraged to specialise in subjects in which they have strengths, relying on collaboration with others to fill gaps in their coverage, it adds.
In a more diverse sector, which may feature further education colleges in a more prominent role, assumptions about standards will have to be revised. "A way needs to be found to differentiate between standards, and to assure a minimum level, across the sector," says the council. But: "The imposition of further per capita reductions, which go beyond genuine efficiencies, would risk real damage to the quality and standards that have been maintained so far."
Institutions will have to be realistic about their objectives, including their ability to provide facilities and support for research, it added.