Higher education needs a radically restructured funding system to promote and protect diversity in the sector, a national conference was told this week.
Sir Stewart Sutherland, vice- chancellor of Edinburgh University and a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, told delegates at the Church of England's education conference that there needed to be a more direct link between institutions' goals and areas of expertise and funding.
Universities and colleges should not be penalised for focussing more on excellence in teaching than on research, or specialising in widening participation in higher education, he said.
"We need a more radical restructuring of how funding is provided. We should move towards a much clearer direction of funding against mission or achievements, rather than saying here is some money for research or access. I do believe there is a strong need to recognise that an institution should be funded for doing x, y or z excellently, whatever that might be," he said.
Sir Stewart's comments followed a speech from Baroness Blackstone, the higher education minister, in which she called on strong research institutions as well as strong teaching institutions to concentrate on widening access.
Baroness Blackstone said one of the lessons from a recent report published by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals was that "all higher education institutions can find ways of helping (to widen participation), and wider access should not be confined to institutions with a specific 'access' mission".
At the same time, all further and higher education institutions had a key responsibility to maintain their standards, she said.
Unreliable standards, incompetence or "botched operations" would not be tolerated, and the government would soon introduce measures to encourage higher standards in FE, she added. "Urgent action" would be needed where there were serious weaknesses.
The minister said the academic community had a duty to be collectively vigilant on standards.
"Academics generally should recognise a responsibility not just to maintain their own standards, but to be alert to unsatisfactory standards elsewhere, and to do something positive about it," she added.