An institutional imperialism of "we're here and you get to us" is no longer acceptable in the US where the student is treated as a valuable customer, Professor Thorne, a leading thinker behind the University for Industry, said.
"In the UK, it's a bureaucratic model and not organised along a sales line. In the US, with one telephone call you can be taken on to a programme of learning," he said.
Professor Thorne called for fresh approaches in reaching students and to tackle the lifelong learning agenda. One in three British adults never returns to education or training after they leave school.
He backed the commercialism which was developing rapidly in Britain. "There are a number of organisations that are trying to examine how we might take on in education commercial ideas which do not threaten the absolute underlying base or integrity of the actual learner," he stated.
"The curriculum or learning encounter need not change, if that is what we want, but maybe the package around it should if we are going to contact the number of learners we need to."
In the US, students, employees and employers recognised the link between learning and salary. Adults became involved because of the "learn more, earn more" culture, which was absent in Britain. Companies rewarded staff who completed courses. The introduction of individual learning accounts might change that.
The expansion of adult learning was big business in America with companies making millions of dollars from online and outreach learning, Professor Thorne said. Phoenix University was currently making profits of $50 million by successfully marketing opportunities across the country.
Phoenix sells services to colleges and universities and inserts its own sales and marketing experts to repackage learning programmes through its Institute of Personal Development. Typically, students on revamped courses study a subject for five weeks, take the exam and move on. If they do not hand in homework, they are telephoned at home. IPD claims a 97 per cent success rate.
The main products are top-up degrees in business, IT and teacher training. Some 3,700 students are following an accountancy course study online.
Such was the scale of the learning expansion, Professor Thorne said, that within a 30-mile radius of Boston there were now 100 universities. In Britain, companies such as BT and Microsoft had identified education as a large potential market. ICL had also done deals with education authorities to equip schools with computer suites and sell the time and space outside school hours.
He pointed to Tower Hamlets in London which has closed its adult education and library service and is reconstructing it around five centrally located centres, some in shops branded as The Idea.