British universities have to think seriously about merging and forging strategic alliances if they want to compete in the cut-throat world of global higher education, vice-chancellors will hear at a conference on Tuesday.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is releasing a report on the conclusions of its year-long Borderless Education study. The report should spur universities to consider whether they can meet the e-learning challenge or if, as researchers believe, a more flexible sector is needed.
Tony Bruce, CVCP policy chief, said: "Global competition is throwing up questions such as whether we have too many institutions, whether they are the right size, whether we have too much competition and not enough collaboration between them, and whether we can find economies of scale."
Learning that crosses the borders of traditional higher education, particularly through the development of internet-based courses, adds significantly to the pressure that makes major restructuring "very likely in the medium term", the report says.
Universities with large numbers of international students and a strong dependence on information technology, business education and paramedical provision are expected to be particularly vulnerable.
But the report, which reviews virtual and corporate developments in learning, says probably all institutions will be affected by borderless education. The effects include:
* A customer-focused approach to education and training, with more virtual learning
* The dissolution of boundaries between public and private, university and college, education and training - raising questions of identity and regulation
* More specialisation and a narrow subject spread, potentially leaving university portfolios "unbalanced and precarious"
* The need for collaboration and increased use of branding to compete successfully.
The report warns: "As higher education moves towards becoming a market - or rather a series of different and sometimes conflicting markets - UK universities cannot ignore these trends, whether in relation to domestic student provision or international activities."
Mr Bruce said the sector had to decide whether to respond to the challenge and make its own changes or face intervention by the government or its agencies.
"We certainly do not favour a planning role for the government. But on the other hand, there may be instances where some public funding might facilitate change. For instance, if it was a question of rationalising provision or facilitating merger or changed relationships between institutions, public funding might be a necessary lubricant to help the sector meet the initial costs," he added.
Potential threats to British higher education are emerging from an explosion in the past five years in corporate, for-profit and online education, and more directly from international consortia of universities and commercial organisations.
British institutions are already taking advantage of the opportunities. But there are policy, managerial and cost implications of a move towards borderless education.
The report says a survey of the thinking in UK universities indicated there was no imminent sense of threat, and it was felt that the demand for traditional provision would remain stable. "Whether this is prudent caution in the face of extensive investment requirements, or an example of the alleged risk-averse behaviour that is said to typify UK universities, is a key question," it adds.
Institutions were particularly concerned about questions of quality assurance, institutional management and cost.
On quality assurance, the report says: "The purposes and assumptions that underpin external arrangements for assuring the quality of higher education will need to change if borderless developments are to be encouraged."
Robin Middlehurst, professor of continuing education at Surrey University and leader of the Borderless Education study, said institutions wanted the CVCP to set up a national observatory to monitor borderless developments. But the report warns that "doing nothing" is not an option.
Professor Middlehurst said: "It would be very easy to hold up your hands and say it's all too expensive and risky. But institutions have to be realistic about their strengths and weaknesses. To do nothing would be very dangerous."