Vice-chancellors are to look at ways to revolutionise collaboration and how it could affect the governance of universities and colleges, at today's Universities UK meeting in Newcastle.
UUK's longer-term strategy group, chaired by Sir David Watson, director of Brighton University, will discuss statistical analysis of the sector prepared by Brian Ramsden, chief executive of the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Sir David said: "We are trying to get the sector to look at itself from the outside in, not from the inside out."
The group has been looking at the Wisconsin model of collaboration in the United States. This model was plugged by Sir Howard Newby, vice-chancellor of Southampton University, in his influential paper Higher Education in the 21st Century: Some Possible Futures . Sir Howard will leave his post as president of UUK in July to become chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, The Wisconsin system links institutions in a state-wide network. "The original collaboration was driven by the state government in the 1960s in order to control expansion and avoid duplication and inefficiency," Sir Howard wrote. "There is a division of labour between campuses, which is non-hierarchical in theory, with complete credit transfer and pathways across all campuses."
Sir David said: "If we were to have, for example, a Manchester system, which included research- intensive institutions as well as those devoted more to access, we would need to know where the governance level lies."
An advantage of the Wisconsin model is that it helps to get away from the binary divide. The disadvantage is that institutions can feel trapped in their own role within the network.
The discussion about new ways of collaborating across the sector will be continued at a seminar in May and a final report is expected to be presented to the annual meeting of UUK in Southampton in September.
Professor Ramsden's report is an analysis of the sector going beyond macro-level economics. "He has looked at the performance of individual institutions," Sir David said. "From this, he has been able to tell the extent to which some institutions are relying on, for example, overseas students' fees and the extent to which changes in Pacific Rim countries, or entry to the European Union, hits these universities."
Professor Ramsden also looked at the extent to which funding patterns have forced institutions, which remain anonymous in the report, to "spread their missions".
The group is holding a seminar on partnerships in May. "We will discuss partnerships with the National Health Service, pre-competitive research partnerships and what is happening to online publishing," Sir David said.
Pre-competitive research partnerships are popular in the US, where a group of companies get together to fund research that they all have an interest in. "We want to see if we can develop such partnerships here," he said.
The group will also consider who owns online course material and what happens to it after it appears online.