Going to university has become a "middle-class shibboleth" that reinforces social divisions and prevents the poor from accessing higher education to improve their life chances.
To remedy the situation, degree-awarding powers must be liberalised and the system of delivery overhauled to enable excellent teaching to rise to the surface and benefit people who may not be attracted to traditional degrees.
That is the argument made by Matt Grist and Julia Margo of the Demos think tank in a collection of 38 essays on the academy's future, due to be launched next week.
Published by the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning, Blue Skies: New thinking about the future of higher education brings together academics, sector leaders and politicians to assess the implications of the recent funding reforms and the challenges facing the UK academy.
Dr Grist, a senior researcher at Demos, and Ms Margo, the organisation's deputy director, argue that the sector is failing to serve people such as a student they recently met at a college in Hackney, who wanted to study radiography but in a short space of time and close to home.
"The very idea of what it means to participate in higher education has become a middle-class shibboleth," they say, a "rite of passage" for such people to "explore" themselves through study and revelry.
Suggesting ways to encourage local teaching institutions to offer two-year degrees to cater for people such as the Hackney student, they add: "With more diversity in the university sector and a labour market less insistent on over-education, more people would have more options for social mobility than they currently have."
The theme is also picked up in some of the other essays, including one by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who confirms that the government "will end the fixed, yet illogical, link between degree-awarding powers and teaching".
"We have...created a regulatory system which says that awarding bodies must also teach students. That would be seen as absurd in any other part of the education sector," he writes.
Others consider pedagogy and suggest that it needs to be radically altered to make it compatible with an internet age in which students can access information instantly.
Phil Race and Sally Brown, both with links to the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Leeds Metropolitan University, argue in separate articles that the nature of assessment needs to move away from out-of-date methods that unwittingly encourage plagiarism.
"Some would even say that our...assessment system is broken, that nothing less than a radical overhaul can save it from falling into total disrepute," writes Professor Brown.
Meanwhile, on the coalition's funding reforms, one high-profile figure calls on the government to reverse the cuts in direct public investment in universities once the UK's fiscal crisis has abated.
Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, points out that the UK's public investment in the academy is still "stubbornly below" the average level among industrialised countries.
"The UK government must return to the question of public investment in higher education as the economy improves," he writes.