The sector will split into four sharply defined groups by 2015 if prevailing pressures on the system do not ease and the cap on tuition fees is raised.
The prediction was made by Roger Brown, co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Research Development at Liverpool Hope University, in a lecture this week.
Speaking at Thames Valley University on 28 October, Professor Brown said that the structure of the sector could change as a result of public spending constraints, international competition, demographic change and the potential increase in the level of the tuition fee cap.
All these factors would reinforce existing tendencies to stratification and fragmentation, he suggested, so that within five years most universities would fall into one of four categories.
These are: elite "brand names"; "no-frills" providers; all-purpose universities; and high-quality specialist institutions.
Brand-name universities would attract the best students, charge premium fees and raise the most endowment and business-related income.
"Most of the dwindling number of people who still favour an academic career will be educated here," Professor Brown said.
At the other end of the market, no-frills providers would offer courses when, where and how they are required, particularly to older students and those in employment.
"Staff will be employed on a similar basis to further education lecturers now, ie, with heavy teaching loads, no time allowances for research ... and little say over the curriculum to be taught," he added.
These universities would offer mainly business and IT courses, but could also provide vocational training in areas such as teaching.
Private providers, possibly controlled from abroad, together with some of the larger further education colleges, would dominate this part of the sector, Professor Brown said.
Between these groups would fall a band of all-purpose "economically marginal" multi-campus institutions.
These would be based mostly in the conurbations and would include a small number of new "mixed-economy" colleges offering further and higher education.
Finally, a small number of expensive specialist institutions would command premium fees for quality.
"The London School of Economics, the London Business School and the Royal College of Art are already in this category," Professor Brown said.
He predicted that most existing institutions would fall into the all-purpose group.
"Except in specific niche areas, they will be unable to compete on quality or reputation with the brand-name institutions," Professor Brown said. "They will therefore be unable generally to charge premium prices."
At the same time, all-purpose universities would be unable to compete on price or service with no-frills providers.
Professor Brown also forecast some restructuring of the curriculum, with private for-profit providers cherry-picking the most profitable subjects.
He warned that the result could be a reduction in the choice available to students.