The model for funding higher education in Northern Ireland is no longer sustainable, the employment and learning minister has warned.
Stephen Farry said action needed to be taken to ensure the future of third level education as he launched what he termed a "big conversation" about the way ahead.
Almost 40% of the income of higher education institutions in Northern Ireland comes from public funding, the highest proportion in the UK.
In the current financial year, the institutions are having to absorb a £16 million cut to that funding and student places and courses have already been cut as a consequence.
Dr Farry said Northern Ireland universities are now underfunded compared to their counterparts in England to the tune of between £1,000 and £2,500 per student
Tuition fees are currently capped in Northern Ireland at around £3,700 per year.
The minister said he was not entering into the "innovative" public engagement exercise with any one solution in mind, noting that while fees in England are much higher, in Scotland another funding model was used that resulted in Scottish students paying no fees.
Outlining his plan in the Assembly, Mr Farry said: "Higher education makes a vital impact on our economy and society here. It drives our knowledge economy by equipping our people with the higher level skills which companies, both local and newly investing, need to grow. It generates billions of pounds of spending in our economy and supports over 18,000 jobs for people in Northern Ireland across a range of occupations.
"It is one of the surest ways for people, regardless of their backgrounds or personal circumstances, to improve their life chances and employment prospects. It is a crucial enabler of social mobility, social cohesion, and social change.
"However, the model we currently use to support higher education here is no longer sustainable. We need an innovative solution. To find this we need an innovative process.
"That is why today I am launching 'The Higher Education Big Conversation'.
"The Big Conversation is an experimental and innovative approach to engaging with people about the important choices facing our society."
The minister said the big conversation would comprise two stages.
"The first stage will focus on promoting the value of higher education to individuals, the economy and wider society," he said.
"It will outline how the existing higher education system works and the challenges it faces and highlight ways in which higher education is delivered and funded across the globe.
"The second stage informed by stage one will be similar to a public consultation exercise where opinions and solutions will be sought from key stakeholders and the wider public as to how Northern Ireland can secure a sustainable higher education system in the future.
"I will be presenting the findings of the 'Higher Education Big Conversation' to my Executive colleagues, outlining the ways in which higher education could be sustained in the future.
"We must all work together to agree a clear way forward for higher education in Northern Ireland, the status quo is no longer an option.
"Research shows that higher education is intrinsic to the social and economic fabric of our region and I want all those who are interested to join the discussion and have their say."
Student body NUS-USI welcomed Mr Farry's announcement.
NUS-USI president Fergal McFerran said there was a need for more investment in higher education to enable the scrapping of tuition fees.
"I welcome the launch of this initiative from the Department for Employment and Learning," he said.
"With a backdrop of political instability and crisis, I feel this process provides a sense of perspective for our political parties.
"They have serious outstanding issues to resolve, but they should remember that they have been elected to govern and legislate in the best interests of Northern Ireland.
"The longer Northern Ireland's politics exists in a never-ending cycle of dysfunction, the longer we fail to offer hope to those in our society who desperately need it.
"The student movement will be fully engaged in all aspects of the big conversation and I sincerely hope this exercise allows us to focus on the public value of higher education in Northern Ireland.
"This must not become a simple discussion about raising tuition fees. That in itself is a short-term solution to a long-term problem and reflects a greater issue we have in Northern Ireland where our politics tends to lack ambition and creativity.
"It is vital that government and stakeholders take the opportunity that this dialogue creates to examine and articulate the benefits of education free from tuition fees.
"This damaging era of underinvestment in higher education must end now. The Northern Ireland Executive must stop wasting money maintaining societal division and start investing in our greatest resource, our people."