Education secretary Estelle Morris ruled out the creation of a British Ivy League in an interview with The THES this week, insisting that every university must continue to be funded for research.
Proposals to be contained in an autumn white paper on higher education will promise extra money for universities to "play to their strengths" in teaching or research. But every institution will be expected to play its part in widening access and to maintain a research role.
Universities should "stop pretending they are all the same" and develop more distinct missions, Ms Morris said. But to avoid the creation of a two-tier system, all institutions would receive basic support for the full spectrum of academic activity.
Ms Morris said: "The top universities compete with the best in the world at research, but places like Coventry and Sunderland are excellent at access. They manage to recruit first-time people into higher education in a way that the Russell Group doesn't."
But she added: "Those universities that really value what they are trying to do for access quite understandably also want to do research. And Oxford and Cambridge do worry about the type of students they are taking."
Ms Morris sympathised with new universities that strengthened their performance in the research assessment exercise without reaping the financial rewards they had expected. She said: "They have got to have an incentive for improvement."
The system would be reviewed in the light of next week's spending announcements, although there could be no backdating of research cash.
The white paper will bring together the separate reviews of student support and higher education strategy, working to a ten-year timeframe. "I don't want to run a department that looks at one term. I won't be around to see the end but I want to set it on a journey and then adapt it, rather than constantly changing direction."
Among the fixed points for the review will be the goal of providing higher education for half of under-30s by 2010 and the principle that students should contribute to the costs of courses. Beyond that, all options are open - including the introduction of top-up fees.
Ms Morris acknowledged that universities needed urgent and sustained injections of cash.
"Schools got the lion's share of the money in the first term, and I can see that universities can only go on like that for so long. I have heard what they have said very clearly: we have to invest in universities, although it will never be as much as they want."
Universities' plight was the result of two decades of underfunding, which Labour had begun to reverse in its first term, Ms Morris said. But she would not concede that higher student contributions offered the only immediate remedy.
Aware that higher education in the US benefits from much more generous donations from alumni and corporations, she is anxious to encourage a cultural shift in Britain. But she said: "I don't want to overplay the prospects because it sounds as if I'm looking for a way out of the state paying, but I do want to begin the process."
Little more than a year of responsibility for higher education after a lifetime of involvement in schools inevitably leaves Ms Morris less confident about this side of her brief. She described herself as an "amateur" on the detailed methods needed to bring about some of the changes she seeks.
But the education secretary is a passionate advocate of wider access against those who claim that it will "dumb down" higher education.
"As far as I am concerned, it's about our self-belief as a nation. I know I don't have to lower standards to get kids from different backgrounds into university," she said. "As a nation we have to ask ourselves whether we believe in our kids. Do we believe that those from some ethnic groups and some backgrounds are at least as bright as the rest? I do.
"As long as I have got the guardians of standards in place, I just have to worry about breaking down the barriers that have stopped them fulfilling their potential."
Ms Morris accepts her responsibility for raising standards in schools so that more teenagers reach the level required for entry to higher education. There would be no point in enticing new students into universities only for them to fail.
But she said that universities must play their part by adapting to a different clientele. "If they are single mothers, for example, they will have particular needs. If they are the first from their family to go into higher education, they might be scared stiff. If universities don't change and people come in from different backgrounds, it might all go wrong."
With eight out of ten new jobs forecast to require degree-level skills, Ms Morris is determined to broaden the net, particularly in engineering, information technology and other technical subjects. "It's about social justice, but it's also about the needs of the economy," she said.
But she ruled out quotas to enforce her access agenda. "We are right to be angry that in 2002 we have got this skewed access to higher education in terms of social class, but we will not change that by beating people around the head."