Higher education minister Margaret Hodge has warned universities to ditch "Mickey Mouse" courses or face financial penalties.
Ms Hodge launched a robust defence of her controversial attacks on substandard courses and accused universities of academic navel-gazing while sometimes failing to provide the programmes that students really needed.
She said that universities had to take responsibility for the quality and relevance of courses they offered. Failure to do so would cost money under proposals contained in last month's higher education white paper, she said.
Speaking to The THES , Ms Hodge stood by her comments last week that poor quality courses were the main reason students drop out. Ms Hodge said that dropout rates were too high in some universities, implying that they ran too many lightweight courses.
She said: "We talk about universities being autonomous bodies with academic freedoms, but responsibility goes along with that power. It is an issue of importance we have to address.
"Most of the research I have looked at shows that the prime reason for dropping out is the course. I accept that there are other issues involved, but equally there are issues that universities have to think about and address."
Many vice-chancellors and student leaders were angered by Ms Hodge linking Mickey Mouse courses, defined by her as lacking intellectual rigour and with little relevance to the job market, to dropout rates. They said that student hardship was the main reason students dropped out.
Ms Hodge hit back: "Outside the very closed world of those who work in universities, I do not think that what I said caused great astonishment. I think universities have to reflect on that. It is a slightly insular, defensive and interim response from them."
The government intends to give the higher education access regulator, proposed in the white paper, the power to fine universities that continue to miss their funding council benchmarks on dropout rates.
Ms Hodge said: "The benchmarks on dropouts reflect the different compositions of students (in universities) and I accept that.
"But in the same way that I am bearing down on those institutions that do not admit a fair proportion of students from poorer backgrounds, I am bearing down on those that fail to hit their dropout benchmarks."
Ms Hodge flies to China tomorrow on a week-long trip during which she will promote UK higher education. She will visit Chinese universities and meeting ministers in a bid to encourage more Chinese students to study in the UK.