Growth in higher education will be delivered through an increase in the number of part-time students as demographic changes mean a falling number of 18 year olds, John Denham told senior academics at a conference to debate the future of higher education today.
One year on from the start of the debate, Mr Denham argued that this growth in the number part-time students will require the development of more flexible, credit-based degrees and for the ability to complete a degree through study at more than one institution.
"The future higher education system will need to ensure greater diversity of methods of study, as well as of qualifications. Long-term trends suggest that part-time study will continue to rise, and it's difficult to see how we can increase the supply of graduates as we must without an increase in part-time study.
"But we will surely need to move decisively away from the assumption that a part-time degree is a full time degree done in bits. I don't have any doubt that the degree will remain the core outcome. But the trend to more flexible ways of learning will bring irresistible pressure for the development of credits which carry value in their own right, for the acceptance of credits by other institutions, and for the ability to complete a degree through study at more than one institution."
In this wide ranging speech he also called for a significant improvement in routes from vocational study into higher education and will stress that the more research intensive universities must address fair access effectively, or their student population will remain skewed.
Mr Denham launched the Higher Education debate in February 2008, the aim is to develop a framework to ensure world class status of the higher education sector is maintained. Today's speech took this debate to the next stage. It also covered issues surrounding postgraduate research and study, research excellence and the need for better partnership working between institutions.
He argued that an important part of maintaining our world class status
will be to ensure that overall funding for higher education - from public and private sectors - will have to increase. However he pointed out that the case for this will have to be more strongly made if this is to be a reality.
On widening participation, Mr Denham said,
"At the moment, the demographic boom runs ahead of us - we are expanding university places faster than we can increase the percentage of those going to university. But in the quite near future, the trend will go into reverse. Achieving 50% of participation by young people will not only become more attainable; it will also become necessary if universities are not to shrink in size and if we are to meet the demand for graduate skills.
"Once we have higher levels of participation it will be as hard to reduce them as it would be to cut our current levels today.
"And, in terms of who goes to university, while the arithmetical majority of widening participation may take place in the more recent universities - as it has to date - the more research intensive universities must address fair access effectively, or their student population will remain skewed. Failing to attract the best talent from all parts of our society is bad for those institutions and bad for the students who miss out on studying there."
On the need for diversified funding Mr Denham said
"Over a 10-15 year period we as a society will need to find ways of increasing the real levels of investment in HE. Your long-term plans should be based on investment and growth because that is what the country will need
"But don't take it for granted. If we want to persuade our society to invest in higher education, (whether through taxes, donations, fees, or business investment), then together, we will need to make a compelling argument that extra investment was well spent in the past and will be in the future."