John Hood, the next vice-chancellor of Oxford University, has said universities must be free to set their own fees but they should do so "responsibly" and with matching access initiatives.
In an exclusive interview with The THES, Dr Hood, currently vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland, said: "I am deeply committed to widening participation. This has to be fairly assessed with best practice properly funded."
Auckland is New Zealand's most research-intensive university, and it charges the highest fees. Dr Hood has long argued that graduates must contribute to the cost of their higher education.
He said: "The demand for higher education is burgeoning and, without introducing fees, no government in the world can meet this. It is right that those who can afford to pay should - but in New Zealand, fees maxima have been set by the government without clearly enunciated principles.
"Universities must be free to set their own fees, but in so doing they must behave responsibly. My argument is, and always has been, that fees must be linked to access."
Auckland has a national outreach programme that targets New Zealand's most talented children. "We also have generous scholarships and are widening our mentoring schemes to ensure that talented school students have their aspirations raised and are then fully supported once they come to Auckland," Dr Hood said.
New Zealand has burgeoning Maori and Polynesian populations that were not participating in higher education to the extent that they should be, he said, adding: "We have set up major research programmes to ensure our pedagogic methods suit these populations."
In a speech last week, Oxford's new chancellor, Chris Patten, expressed a commitment to access but said it must not become a "crowbar for social engineers rather than a challenge for educationists".
He said universities should not be blamed for failures in the school system.
Dr Hood said: "In New Zealand, this is a challenging area. We have what we call a 20 per cent tail - schools where barely any students are making the grade for university. This is deeply distressing, and at Auckland we believe we have a responsibility to those school students. There are things we can do."
Dr Hood stressed that his comments related purely to New Zealand. He said:
"What I would say about Oxford is that it does a great deal of outreach work that goes unnoticed."