In a speech in Birmingham today, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, called for scientists to be given the space to think and experiment.
But he also said that universities must forge closer links with business to “crack that old British problem” of failing to make the most of the country’s discoveries and inventions.
The minister argued that scientists needed the help of entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into successful businesses.
“Joseph Priestley successfully obtained oxygen and carbon dioxide from air. He did the experiments, but it was a Swiss businessman who made money by using his technique to put fizz in water – he was called Joseph Schweppe,” he said.
Mr Willetts was speaking a week before Lord Browne of Madingley’s review of university fees and funding is due to report.
“When money is tight, it is right to expect people to make a substantial contribution towards the cost of their university education,” Mr Willetts told the conference.
Payments should not be made while students are studying but afterwards, when they graduate and are “on a decent income”, and there should be protection for the lowest paid.
However, graduates could not be expected to pay more “if they have not been properly taught”, Mr Willetts argued.
“I want to be able to look students in the eye and say they are getting a better education in return for the higher contributions they will make,” he said.
The fact that academics are more likely to be promoted for research work or for administering their department rather than for excellent teaching had to change, he added, claiming that government efforts to encourage greater competition from private higher education providers would drive change in this area.
“I am determined to make it easier for other new teaching institutions to challenge existing ones,” he said.
Mr Willetts also announced the introduction of higher education scholarships for the children of service personnel killed on active duty since 1990.
• For more coverage of the Conservative Party conference, see Times Higher Education on 7 October.