Radical changes to part-time higher education are needed if the UK is to take a lead role in the knowledge economy, according to a vice-chancellor writing a government review.
In the past, part-time learners were "at the bottom of the food chain", Christine King, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, was due to tell a conference this week.
"Old-style part-time learning" meant students taking classes in "cold rooms, at the end of the day, with caretakers wanting you home, and no coffee", she will say in a lecture entitled, "Caretakers, Keys and Cold Coffee."
Professor King is leading a review of part-time learning as part of a series of investigations into the long-term future of higher education commissioned by the Government.
"If we continue to do what we have always done in relation to part-time study, we will get what we always got - and we will not achieve our place in the knowledge economy," her report will say.
She will argue that the Government, employers and higher education must now recognise that flexible study is critically important for the future economic and social success of the country.
Part-time students are consistently disadvantaged by the current system, and the term "part time" implies a norm of full time and a hierarchy of importance between the two, her report will suggest.
Some 40 per cent of higher education students in the UK are studying on a part-time basis, and increasing numbers are engaging in short, non-accredited courses.
This figure is set to rise as the rapidly changing social and economic worlds drive the need for people to update and acquire new skills throughout their working lifetimes, Professor King said - but the right conditions must be in place.
"Pretty soon in the future, what all learners are going to need is flexibility and flexible learning," she told Times Higher Education.
"Most of my students are working in paid work as well as their studies just to survive - in a way they already are part time," Professor King said.
Professor King said her own university was looking at 24-hour library opening and reviewing traditional academic term times.
University funding must be equally flexible, following learning that comes in "bite-sized" chunks.
"Now we are dealing with a generation of young and mature students who work in cyberspace, who work flexibly, who (undertake) portfolio work, who are constantly switching and growing their skills. Let's get wise to this and let's make funded flexible opportunities really available."
Professor King said her brief asked her not to look at financial support for part-time students.
"But we have asked the question: Why would you support a student in one mode and not another?" she said.