The prospect of greater private involvement in UK higher education has been mooted by a vice-chancellor who is calling for a radical re-envisioning of the sector.
Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, used a Royal Society of Arts/Fulbright Commission Lecture this week to warn that without action now it could be "downhill from here" for the sector, arguing that it was time to "think the unthinkable".
Setting out ways to safeguard the standing of UK higher education, particularly against competition from what he predicted would be a resurgent US, Professor Thrift said he would like to see a sector modelled along the lines of the Californian university system, which is "heterogeneous, bringing together all kinds of institutions into a functioning, resilient whole".
He argued for consolidation among the 30 or so research-led institutions that rank just below the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College London and University College London, and not necessarily via mergers.
"The commercial world provides some interesting ideas," he said, citing "holding company mergers", such as those between carmakers Peugeot and Citroen, or Unilever's conglomerate structure, as options.
Professor Thrift also raised the prospect of foreign mergers or takeovers, which "might be one way of solving the chronic underfunding" of many such institutions.
A third option might be privately owned not-for-profit status for a few of these top universities, he suggested, although he acknowledged that such a move would be experimental and initially would have to be limited to a few institutions.
Finally, he suggested that some top-flight universities should consider increased specialisation. "It is unlikely that all the research-intensive universities can retain their current disciplinary span if they wish to be world-class players in research," he said.
Professor Thrift stressed that he was seeking to start a debate rather than direct what should happen, but added: "We should at least talk about these things at this point."