Speaking at Universities UK’s annual conference, Toni Pearce said university heads should be “on the breakfast television sofa” and taking part in public debates.
“You should be on Question Time instead of Russell Brand and David Starkey – I mean seriously.”
Ms Pearce joked that she had 18 years of experience in education, while vice-chancellors collectively had “about 5,000”.
They should be “some of the most important intellectual leaders in society”, she said, noting that many university leaders had expertise in key areas such as public health, technology and poverty. “I urge you exploit your positions,” she added.
Ms Pearce appealed for vice-chancellors to speak out against the government’s lobbying bill, which would subject many organisations – including charities and unions – to a £390,000 cap on their campaign spending in the run-up to an election.
More generally, she urged them to take a “wider role in social and political debate. Great universities should not be ivory towers, but institutions of the people…I hope that you as university leaders will bring that mission to life.”
The conference, held at the University of Leicester, also heard from the new UUK president, Sir Christopher Snowden.
He warned that the spending review after the 2015 election will open “complicated discussions with government – and especially on the sustainability of the loan system”.
And he continued that universities must “argue for alternative funding models that might include different ways of structuring the student loan scheme and current funding systems, or making the case for increased investment, or indeed both”.
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Sir Christopher said the £9,000 fees system came about “with very little real engagement from the sector”, and was “imposed” by the government.
“We have to lead, not follow. Above all we must be clear about what we want,” he said in his speech.
Sir Christopher told reporters that changing loan repayment thresholds for graduates, or the 30-year write off period, or interest rates were options. “There are a whole number of issues that could be addressed here that have a significant impact on the viability of the scheme,” he added.
He sounded sceptical when asked about Labour’s policy to lower fees to £6,000 if the party was in power now, noting it would require “a significant level of direct funding to universities”. He added: “That would present a challenge for any government, realistically.”
Sir Christopher also warned that the £9,000 fee cap is being eroded by inflation (saying in his speech that it would be worth the equivalent of £8,250 by mid-2015), meaning that supporting the student experience would become “increasingly challenging”.