Universities will need to raise standards and become more customer-focused to survive in the new fee-driven culture, marketing and fundraising heads were warned this week.
Many institutions are going to find it harder to fill degree courses in the coming years as the pool of school-leavers shrinks and prospective students become more discerning and expect more in return for their cash, delegates at a major conference heard.
Universities will need to improve what they have to offer and the way they sell it as funding pressures push fee levels beyond the present limit, conference speakers said at the European annual conference of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
Competition in the traditional recruitment market is set to get tougher with demographic trends expected to bring a decline of up to 20 per cent in the number of school-leavers seeking places in higher education by 2010, according to Peter Slee, deputy vice-chancellor at Northumbria University.
Since universities need to grow by 4 per cent a year just to cover their salary bills, there will inevitably be pressure to increase top-up fees to compensate for the drop in student numbers. This in turn will lead to students demanding more in return for their investment, Professor Slee told conference delegates.
"What that means is that almost all institutions are going to have to raise their standards, since it is unreasonable to expect students not to demand more if they are paying more," he said.
Sean Figgis, Northumbria's head of public relations, said most universities would also need to overhaul their approach to marketing themselves and targeting customers. For example, prospectuses that tend to be riddled with jargon and organised around institutions' bureaucratic structures may need to be rewritten.
"It used to be that universities assumed that they selected students. In future, it will be the other way around," he said.
Also speaking at the conference, Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, said that universities should make courses more flexible so that they appeal to a wider range of students.
He said that institutions would need to adapt to the new fee-charging climate by offering students more choice, support and advice. New two-year "compressed" honours degrees, being piloted in five institutions, are an example of how universities should seek ways to meet the demands of the market.
Mr Rammell said: "To reach those who would benefit most from higher education we must be committed to delivering new and ambitious approaches to learning. Greater flexibility in provision can give people the opportunity to learn in ways that meet their learning needs, preferences and abilities best."