The move to a mass higher education system is justified by the key role universities play in promoting a civilised society as well as by their economic benefits, Sir Howard Newby said this week.
In a speech designed to change the emphasis of the debate over the rationale for the expansion of student numbers, Sir Howard stressed the wider social and cultural importance of academic institutions, arguing that higher education "is more than a means to an end".
His speech was delivered after research suggested there were flaws in the government's economic arguments for attracting half of 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education by 2010. A new book, The Mismanagement of Talent , predicts that expansion will produce a glut of underemployed and unemployed graduates.
Sir Howard, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, made his plea in response to concerns that the justification for expansion was couched increasingly in terms of the benefits to the UK economy.
At a seminar in memory of Colin Bell, the sociologist and former vice-chancellor of Stirling and Bradford universities who died last year, Sir Howard stressed that expansion should extend opportunity to those who have not traditionally aspired to university.
He said: "There is more to higher education than a core function of contributing to economic growth. Higher education is more than a means to an end.
"Although there are arguments that can be mounted in terms of the economic benefits of mass higher education, we should not overlook our commitment to the wider social and cultural benefits.
"Higher education institutions are an important element of civil society.
They are institutions that stand between the state and the individual, mediating relationships between the two. In an increasingly secular society, this is a not inconsiderable factor."
Sir Howard called universities the repositories of culture and civilising values. "The defence of reason, the cultivation of young minds and the extension of a civilising influence are not the kind of concepts that pass the test of Treasury scrutiny in spending reviews," he said. "Nevertheless, that is no reason why we in the higher education world should abandon them."
Sir Howard argued that specialised further education colleges should act as bridges to widen access to higher education".
In a book published in autumn, Phillip Brown of Cardiff University and Anthony Hesketh of Lancaster University argue that the government's belief that there will be an explosion in the number of jobs requiring knowledge workers is misplaced.
Dr Hesketh said: "In reality, what growth there has been has been sluggish.
Lower skilled jobs have expanded at far faster rates than knowledge worker jobs."