Proposals to channel research funding into just one or two major graduate schools in each region have received a cold response from Higher Education Minister David Lammy.
In a report to the Government last month, Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, advocated greater research concentration as part of a series of measures to better develop universities' intellectual property. Critics said this would condemn dozens of institutions to a teaching-only role, preventing them from offering PhDs.
David Lammy, speaking last week at a Times Higher Education conference on intellectual property (IP), said the Government aimed to ensure that all universities were "brought up to the level of the best" when it came to exploiting research.
"Because we have world-class institutions there is a contribution on the world stage, but increasingly on both a regional and a local level there are important benefits as well.
"I know that universities increasingly recognise that a firm grasp on IP issues is essential to their own future success.
"In saying that, I want to pay respect to the whole family of institutions that make up our higher education sector, not just those that are caught up in the most intensive research."
He welcomed Professor Wellings' helpful and "imaginative thinking", but added: "We have got a system that means we have research-intensive universities that are making a very important contribution in relation to patents and in relation to the global stage, but we have also got universities finding that that is happening with business relationships locally.
"IP must not be a decision that embraces just a smaller group of universities, it should embrace the whole family of institutions."
Lita Nelson, director of the Technology Licensing Office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also warned against too much concentration of resources, based on the US experience. "Every time a state or a region has tried aggregating it hasn't worked well at all and they have had to devolve back to the individual campuses because there needed to be personal interaction," she said.
Malcolm Skingle, director of external science and technology at GlaxoSmithKline, told delegates they should look to Scotland and target specific industries with their expertise. "They (Scotland) have been punching above their weight for years. They're focused on the sectors they want to tap into and they've made some hard choices," he said.
Professor Wellings said greater diversity in the sector was inevitable. "If you said to me in 15 to 20 years' time could you imagine a world where the UK has 120 full-spectrum universities, I just don't think that's going to happen."
UNIVERSITIES TOLD TO SPELL OUT IP OWNERSHIP IN CONTRACTS
Universities must pin down ownership of intellectual property in their academics' contracts if they want to avoid costly and embarrassing legal battles, according to Alison Patten-Hall, a partner at Morgan Cole.
Speaking at the Times Higher Education conference on making the most of intellectual property (IP), Ms Patten-Hall said that ownership of IP was a complex matter that should be dealt with at the point of employment.
She warned that academics carrying out research during the summer break may claim it as their own, while the university would believe it belonged to them.
"I would never advise a client to rest on standard assumptions about ownership. You should look at ownership in the employment contract so you can iron out some of these horrible grey areas," she said.
""What we have got to get across to academics is that if it (work) is done outside term time it doesn't mean they necessarily own it."