Three-quarters of UK university heads who took part in a survey think public spending cuts will lead to the disappearance of some institutions.
But almost none of those asked think their institutions will fail, the poll for PA Consulting adds.
Some two-thirds of the 43 university bosses who responded said they planned to develop an international presence.
Universities charge foreign students much higher tuition fees than domestic students.
So developing campuses abroad could lead to more students coming to study at their UK bases.
The web poll for the IT consulting and technology firm comes as a vice-chancellor warns that universities are preparing to start the next academic year with thousands of unfilled places because of fears of fines for over-recruitment.
Michael Brown, vice-chancellor at Liverpool John Moores University, wrote in the Independent newspaper that in normal times "university admission tutors offer more places to candidates than actually exist" to ensure all are filled.
However, he added that this year they would not be able to do that because they could not afford to "take risks".
Last year some £4m in fines were levied against universities that over-recruited.
Mr Brown's warning comes as universities face their tightest budgets for decades.
The survey for the consulting firm suggests university bosses think they have effective leadership in place and a clear view of what needs to be done to address changing "market conditions".
But in 60% of cases this confidence did not extend to staff. A similar proportion named an inability to move or change "intransigent staff" among their three greatest concerns.
PA Consulting education expert Paul Woodgates said: "Given the widespread prediction of significant structural changes in the organisation of higher education, it might be expected that more institutions would anticipate being involved in these changes. But relatively few did so.
"Universities must act urgently to address these challenges. Carrying on as before is simply not enough."
The research also comes as universities representative group Universities UK publishes a report on how institutions can ensure the future success of their research.
It calls for universities to work more closely with industry and encourages researchers and industrialists to go on work swap schemes.
And it also says researchers in any field should be required to have a foreign language to enable them to work abroad more easily.
Universities should work with schools to stress the importance of languages, as it can be a vulnerable area for researchers and contributes to the "general reluctance of UK students to travel".
The report says: "There is good evidence, however, that overcoming the challenge is beneficial.
"There is a marked tendency for the UK's most highly-cited researchers to have had one or more periods of their early research career overseas."
It adds that countries with high levels of international mobility often turn this into high levels of international collaboration.