Universities must be prepared to compromise on their autonomy in order to take a more active role in national strategies that affect society and the economy, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, told university heads this week.
"I do not want to tell institutions what to teach or tell students what to study, but there needs to be a rational debate about many issues," he said, in a speech delivered at the Universities UK annual conference last Wednesday.
"It is important that, while we strengthen institutional autonomy, we establish that universities make an important contribution to national wellbeing and that there are national considerations to take into account."
Cabinet ministers have been asked by Mr Clarke to identify policy areas where they think universities could help make a difference, he revealed.
Universities could be doing more to help the Government address the underachievement of 14 to 19-year-olds, a problem identified by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development this week in a report that ranked the UK th out of 30 countries in this area.
Mr Clarke made a plea to vice-chancellors to engage positively with "controversial proposals" expected from the Tomlinson review of 14-to-19 education as part of an effort to deal with the issue.
He urged institutions to be prepared to expect national steers on the provision of subject areas that are under threat or in decline, such as chemistry or mathematics. "Universities must be prepared to be involved in initiatives linked with the Government's skills strategy, such as the development of modern apprenticeships and foundation degrees," the Education Secretary said.
He added: "They should be ready to take on board the recommendations of the Schwartz report where these could lead to best practice in approaches to admissions."
Earlier, Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK, called on the Government "to trust universities to deliver and account for themselves without micromanagement or excessive regulation."