The claim was made by Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester, before this week's publication of performance indicators for widening participation and non-continuation rates by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Professor Burgess argued that Leicester was at the vanguard of a movement typified by a shift away from a focus solely on teaching and research, to one in which more weight is put on exceeding targets for improving access and enhancing the student experience.
"People have conventionally talked about elite and non-elite universities, but there is a new wave of universities that are ... doing something much broader," he said.
"I am talking about a high-quality student experience coupled with high-quality research and teaching: the idea that universities don't just promote widening participation but actually meet and exceed benchmarks. Those things influence the ethos of a university."
Professor Burgess said that Leicester had met or exceeded targets for widening participation for several years, and the latest performance indicators show that this trend has been maintained.
In 2008, 89.5 per cent of Leicester's students were from state schools (the figure is 91.4 per cent this year); 26 per cent were from lower socio-economic groups (26.7 per cent this year); and 6.6 per cent were from low-participation neighbourhoods (7.9 per cent this year).
Professor Burgess said he would include the universities of Loughborough, Exeter, York and Manchester in his "new wave".
"I wouldn't call them a group - it's a movement in terms of shaping the values of higher education in the 21st century," he said.