Universities will be increasingly reluctant to recruit students from poor homes because it does not make good business sense, a survey of vice-chancellors has found.
Instead, hard-pressed universities, including ones traditionally successful in opening doors to students from underprivileged backgrounds, plan to shift recruitment towards "better value" overseas and postgraduate students.
Survival of the Fittest: A Survey on the Leadership of Strategic Change in Higher Education , from the PA Consulting Group, argues that government drives to widen access must be backed by cash if they are to be achieved.
Even the introduction of variable fees may not redress the "poor business case" for recruiting widening participation students, it says.
The report comes amid calls from higher education chiefs for higher premiums for poor students in this year's government spending review - after research by the Higher Education Funding Council for England that shows the true cost of teaching non-traditional students is 35 per cent more than for other students.
"In previous reports for Universities UK and the funding council, we found the premium paid for non-traditional students was simply not enough. It was noticeable in this survey that heads of strong access universities were reluctantly planning to move away from this student market," said Mike Boxall, the report's author.
In the report, one vice-chancellor says: "Eventually, we expect to have a different profile and mix based on more postgraduates and fewer undergraduates, and more professional, National Health Service and international students."
The survey concludes that vice-chancellors, driven by market forces, are acting more like chief executives of large companies than agents of government policy. Consequently, the undergraduate market, as financed by the UK funding councils, is increasingly viewed as an "unattractive business proposition" - with uncertain demand, poor revenues and high levels of bureaucracy.
Nearly a quarter of vice-chancellors foresee a decline in the overall quality of the student experience, and half expect the employment value of a first degree to fall.
PA Consulting also found that variable fees are unlikely to solve what vice-chancellors see as their main problems - access to external finance and the ability to recruit and retain high-calibre staff. Some 58 per cent of vice- chancellors rate "pressure for investment in buildings and facilities" as greatly significant. Rising salary costs are also significant for 54 per cent of respondents.
The survey, which was sent to all heads of universities and higher education colleges and had a response rate of nearly 50 per cent, says vice-chancellors predict significant reductions in the number of universities. More than 28 per cent - equivalent to more than 40 institutions - are planning mergers or major strategic alliances in the next two years. Most of this change will come in post-1992 universities and higher education colleges.
More than four-fifths of vice-chancellors surveyed expect government research funding to be concentrated in an "Ivy League" of perhaps ten to 20 universities. But there is widespread resistance to the idea that other universities should concentrate on teaching. Instead, vice-chancellors are seeking to develop alternative streams of research-related income based on selected areas of expertise.
Nearly 60 per cent plan to develop alliances with business partners over the next two years, with only 10 per cent concerned about a lack of external partners.
Survival of the Fittest: A Survey on the Leadership of Strategic Change in Higher Education is available from the PA Consulting Group at info@paconsulting