Universities should follow business by appointing two leaders equivalent to a chief executive and a chief operating officer, in effect splitting the role of vice-chancellor, according to a consultant.
Paul Hoskins, managing director of Precedent, claimed that some institutions are not dealing well with the global financial crisis. He added that those that are responding are focusing solely on the short term, with major cost-cutting exercises across the board.
Mr Hoskins said that universities needed to think about short-term efficiencies while also planning for long-term growth and fresh income streams.
But planning to grow while cutting jobs is very difficult to do, he said, so universities need a business-style management model to deal with the complexity because vice-chancellors cannot be all things to all people.
"The best model is having a chief operating officer to make sure that the organisation is run effectively, and a chief executive officer to secure new funding streams for the future," Mr Hoskins said.
"It's very difficult for the same person to think about these two streams. You have to ensure that you build future revenue, but also cut for the bad times."
Mr Hoskins said that higher education was still dominated by "antiquated structures" that must be overturned. However, this would lead to redundancies, he warned.
"There is a lot more efficiency that can be put into the system," he added.
A spokesman for the University and College Union agreed that there were problems with management, but added that the union was "unconvinced that changing the names on the doors or job titles will solve the problems".
"Getting more people in with no understanding of the education world is not going to improve matters," he said.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ think-tank, said: "You will find that universities will make sure that in their senior management teams they have all the skills and expertise you would expect to run successful academic institutions, which also have to operate in the image of successful businesses."
'Umbrella' structure is the future for universities, report claims
Universities should think of themselves as "holding structures" for a conglomerate of separately managed businesses, a report by a firm of management consultants says.
PA Consulting's report, Escaping the Red Queen Effect: Succeeding in the New Economics of Higher Education, says that the idea of the university as an umbrella body "challenges the widespread presumption that each university should be self-contained and self-sufficient in everything it does".
This would be considered "bizarre" in any other sector, the report states.
Businesses that could be managed under the "umbrella" include teaching and research centres, online services, further education colleges and employer partnerships.
It would also encompass in-house operations and third-party arrangements such as the joint ventures several universities already have with private providers of education such as INTO and Kaplan.
Tim Wilson, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, said: "To meet new demands, universities will need to become even more flexible, value-sensitive and responsive.
"The shape of the sector will evolve rapidly over the next two decades; this report is a useful contribution to those engaged in scenario planning."