Plans to increase work placements for students must lead to real jobs and not cheap labour, their representatives have said.
Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry launched a higher education strategy aimed at boosting teaching and learning, but also to help meet the needs of industry.
Mr Farry said he wanted to deliver a vibrant higher education sector, but also one which could maximise benefits to the economy.
The minister said that by 2020 all higher education students will be offered the chance of a placement, and by 2018 all graduates who take on work experience will be handed a report on their achievements, in addition to their degree.
The NUS-USI students union welcomed what it described as an "ambitious" blueprint, but expressed concerns over some aspects, including plans to step up student placements.
"These placements must not be about cheap labour for companies - there have to be employment opportunities at the end of placements where possible. The enthusiasm and expertise of our students must be rewarded by job offers and this cannot be a one-way process," said NUS-USI president Adrianne Peltz.
The minister told the Assembly the strategy involved a raft of measures and initiatives. "Our institutions play a critical role in addressing our future skill needs, and in developing our knowledge economy through research and development and knowledge transfer," he told MLAs.
Mr Farry added: "My department's vision for higher education is one which is vibrant and of international calibre; which pursues excellence in teaching and research; which plays a pivotal role in the development of a modern, sustainable knowledge-based economy; which supports a confident, shared society; and which recognises and values diversity."
Sixteen projects have been developed to implement the higher education strategy.
Ms Peltz said: "It is very important that we widen access and participation in higher education so that people from lower income backgrounds receive more encouragement and are not deterred from studying at university due to costs. This appears to be an ambitious strategy and I sincerely hope it can deliver positive change in our higher education system."