Birmingham University academics are to be encouraged to seek markets for professional updating courses and flexible programmes that can be delivered electronically or in the workplace.
New vice-chancellor Michael Stirling hopes the move will help the university to stay out of deficit and better promote itself to potential students and industry partners.
He said it will be a "close call" whether the university manages to break even this year, thanks to the financial pressures on the sector and a five-year £156 million building programme.
"We have used our financial position to move money from reserves into buildings, but that has put pressure on our income and expenditure account. Now we have to improve our activities so that we increase our income," he said.
Professor Stirling, who broke with family tradition to become an engineer rather than going into banking, said he would run the same "tight ship" at Birmingham as he did during 11 years as vice-chancellor at Brunel University.
He said the university was producing quality teaching and research, but it still needed to "punch harder" to put itself in the top five of league tables.
Professional updating could become a surplus-generating activity that would allow recruitment of more staff.
Professor Stirling said he was "not advocating a switch to a fully business-orientated model", but there was a need for the university to keep up a "continual reappraisal" of its position. "There is a danger that the idea that your provision may become out of date does not get factored in," he said.
Birmingham academics can expect a consultative rather than an autocratic approach to change. "Most engineers tend to take an analytical approach. We look at the data, and then use the input from people to shade the view that emerges from that information," Professor Stirling said.