More diversity within the sector and less within individual institutions is the recipe for success in UK higher education, a vice-chancellor has said.
Glynis Breakwell, of the University of Bath, told a planning forum of the Association of University Administrators (AUA) that universities must "move away from the assumption that everybody has to do a bit of everything".
Most income streams available to individual universities are "already being tapped", she said. The challenge is to focus attention on some streams over others, she added.
This focus would "catalyse differentiation" within the sector and could change the character and identity of some institutions radically over the next decade.
Professor Breakwell's call echoes the Government's framework for higher education, a long-term strategy published this month, which warns that "very few English universities will be able to achieve excellence across the full range of university activity".
In October, Alison Richard, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, called on ministers to "limit the ambitions and opportunities" of individual universities while "encouraging them to create their own distinctive excellence within their particular set of responsibilities".
Whether universities will be prepared, or able, to stop work in some areas of activity is unclear.
One delegate at the AUA meeting in Warwick on 12 November told Times Higher Education that universities would withdraw from income-generating activities only if they could make up the lost funds elsewhere. Another said the case for diversification was "inextricably linked" to the case for more investment, while a third said that funding council incentives would be needed.
The Government has outlined plans to make English universities compete for more funds according to their missions. North of the border, the Scottish Funding Council has already diverted 10 per cent of teaching and research funds into a pot directed at "promoting specialism and diversity in the university sector", alongside other objectives.
Paul Clark, director of policy at Universities UK, said that increasing differentiation could lead to universities receiving different amounts of state funding for teaching each student. "We may arrive at a position where there are multiple units of resource," he said.
But in her speech to the AUA event, Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of new universities, warned that diversity of mission was being used as an excuse to "perpetuate inequities in funding regimes and reputations".
In a session on approaches to cost control, planners discussed the difficulties of closing academic units.
"Breadth of provision is expected in a university," said one, whose institution considered but rejected departmental closures after a poor performance in the research assessment exercise 2008.
Others said loss-making science, engineering and technology departments were being kept open because such provision is seen as essential to the economy.