The new chair of the elite Russell Group of universities will turn it into a more formal body with its own executive posts. Michael Sterling, 57, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, will take over from Sir Colin Lucas, Oxford's vice-chancellor, in July.
The 19 Russell-Group members have agreed to put resources into public relations and into papers setting out the group's position on key points. Professor Sterling stressed that this would not mean the end of Universities UK.
Professor Sterling said that Russell Group universities were often unfairly criticised. "What they provide is high quality higher education and that does not come cheap." Although the group was concerned to see the white paper go through with the possibility of £3,000 a year top-up fees, he said: "As universities competing internationally we are acutely aware of our funding falling behind that of our competitors. As government funding is not forthcoming, student fees are the only game in town."
According to a THES survey, Professor Sterling is the UK's fourth highest paid vice-chancellor, on £155,000 a year. He joined Birmingham two years ago after heading Brunel University for 11 years.
He is president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers and chairs the board of the Higher Education Statistics Agency. His first degree was from Sheffield University and he began his academic career there before becoming professor of engineering, aged 34, at Durham University.
Outside of higher education, Professor Sterling enjoys DIY, computers, gardening and model engineering.
In 2001, Russell group universities accounted for more than 60 per cent of UK universities' research grant and contract income, more than 50 per cent of all doctorates awarded in the UK and more than 35 per cent of all students studying in the UK from outside the EU. The group was set up in 1994 and got its name from meeting in the Russell Hotel, London.