Prestigious and lucrative post-graduate courses in areas such as business and management were particularly at risk from "cyber-campuses" pioneered in America, said a report by the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals.
The report, to be discussed by university vice-chancellors at their annual conference in Manchester today, warned of the potential impact of new private-sector university offering courses for profit. It recommended that academics forge links with the new players to limit direct competition.
"Lessons from the US show us that once `for-profit' providers gain a foothold in an educational market, the risk to non-enterprise-like, more traditionally organised providers rapidly escalates," the report said. Their concerns focus on "mega-universities"- those with more than 100,000 students - corporate universities and universities operating over the Internet.
The report said: "In the USA there are a growing number of focused, targeted institutions of high quality which are delivering fully accredited distance learning, such as the University of Phoenix, a for-profit franchise organisation which is developing dominance in slices of the market. Such developments could fundamentally challenge UK activity in some areas, for example business and management."
Possible new competitors also include large companies such The Body Shop and Ford, which are setting up in-house universities to offer their staff training and even degree-level and postgraduate study.
British Aerospace, which runs the leading corporate university, offers a range of MSc degrees in aircraft engineering, as well as management and other courses.
"Private providers have the power to secure footholds in higher education by the use of huge development resources," the report said. "Universities need to consider how they can exploit resources created by the new knowledge providers, which may be more rewarding than being drawn into direct competition."
Traditional British higher education already faces competition for mature students from the Open University It is Britain's only mega-university, with 165,000 students, and runs the world's largest computer course over the Web.Reuse content