Universities must "hold a mirror up to society" in the drive to sustain it as democratic, civilised and inclusive, Lord Dearing has said, writes John Gill.
The author of the influential 1997 review of higher education issued a warning that a policy focus on economic competitiveness should not obscure the equally important role played by universities in tackling social ills.
Speaking at Newman University College in Bartley Green, Birmingham, Lord Dearing said that higher education must take the lead in mending society's "fault lines".
He said: "We talk incessantly about the economic threat arising from the fast-developing economies of China and India and the need for economic competitiveness.
"Much of national policy for teaching and research is to address our need for competitiveness. But I say the wellbeing of our civilisation is also at hazard."
Citing a breakdown of the democratic process, disaffection of the young, the erosion of shared values and the increasing gap between high and low earners, Lord Dearing said it was as important as ever for the "idea of the university" to extend beyond providing skills for the workforce.
He said: "Yes, there is a major problem of inadequately skilled people, and it perplexes and angers me that for 140 years we have been bemoaning it, with one committee of inquiry after another seeking remedies. This time we must deal with it, in the right ways.
"But I would like equally, in our thinking about the idea of the university, to see a renaissance of the concern of Cardinal Newman for the development of the good and sensible human being, and in addition the university engaging actively with society to mend its growing state of disrepair; for the universities to take up the fourth purpose as identified by the Dearing report.
"Higher education, as we have it today, has made the transition brilliantly from being the pursuit of a social elite. We are immensely in its debt.
"But happily, and I mean happily, there is still so much more to do. The university's core values transcend time and place and will endure."
Lord Dearing was positive about universities' ability to meet the numerous demands being made of them.
"Higher education has proved itself both adaptable and resilient, used to changing priorities. It has rightly become a firmament of many different stars," he said.
Lord Dearing was speaking at the inaugural Newman Lecture at the college.
Newman University College, which is named after 19th-century Cardinal John Henry Newman, has just been granted degree-awarding powers.