Sally Hunt became general secretary of the Association of University Teachers this week and immediately warned the government that it cannot widen participation or deliver world-class research on the cheap.
Signalling a move away from the behind-the-scenes lobbying espoused by her predecessor, David Triesman, now the Labour Party's general secretary, Ms Hunt said she wanted to lead a "rejuvenated and re-focused union" more ready to take on the government when necessary.
She warned that the government's key target of getting half of 18-30 year-olds through higher education by 2010 was in jeopardy without proper funding. "I'm not saying 'no' to the policy - if we could achieve it, it would be fantastic," she said. "But unless they do something radical about funding, we are not going to get there."
"The government has to realise that it cannot deliver world-class research and ever wider participation on the cheap," she said.
Ms Hunt, aged 37, was the AUT's assistant general secretary and was the executive committee's official candidate in the election. She will take the post immediately.
On a turnout of just over a quarter of the AUT's 45,000 members, Ms Hunt won 43 per cent of the first-round votes, compared with 31 per cent for John Duffy of Birmingham University and 26 per cent for Martin Hughes, a Durham University philosopher. She then won 52 per cent of the final poll, 5,560 votes, compared with 45 per cent for Mr Duffy, on 4,875 votes.
"The result is an endorsement from members for a strong and independent union that is able to challenge the government when necessary and protect our professional identity," she said.