Traditional red brick universities risk extinction unless they respond creatively to growing competition from free online courses, private providers and increasing globalisation in higher education, a former government education adviser has warned.

The study, “An Avalanche is Coming”, is published after global university rankings this month showed a greater polarisation between elite “superbrands” such as Oxford and Cambridge, and others such as Leeds, which has dropped out of the top 100 for the first time. The league, compiled by the Times Higher Education magazine, signals that British universities are losing ground to institutions in emerging Asian economies.

Sir Michael Barber, the report’s author, is a former adviser to Tony Blair and chief education adviser at Pearson, which owns the Financial Times. He identified “the ordinary red brick university that just ticks over” as most vulnerable, but said it was hard to predict when the “avalanche” would strike.

“We think there’s as much opportunity as threat,” Sir Michael said. “If universities and governments take up these opportunities there could be a golden age ahead. The big dangers are complacency, timidity and risk aversion.”

The study, published by the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank, argues that the forces of technology and globalisation that transformed banking and finance are now looming over higher education.

Massive open online courses, known as “Moocs”, provide top course content and lectures on the internet free of charge. Increasingly popular for-profit institutions, such as DeVry University in Illinois, have the power to award degrees.

Researchers note that it is harder for universities to retain their top talent: the rise in household-name academics such as Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson has led to what the report calls the “Ronaldo effect”, after the Brazilian footballer. Those stars of academia can “set their own terms and take their brand and reputation to the highest bidder just as top sportsmen can”, the report reads.

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