Sir David Bell, who has been permanent secretary in the Department for Education since 2006 and was previously Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, will take up the post in January 2012.
The former headteacher, who served four secretaries of state and three prime ministers as a civil servant, said he was attracted to Reading as an “ambitious institution”.
“The University of Reading has a tremendous reputation both nationally and internationally for its ground-breaking and world-renowned research, outstanding teaching, high quality student experience and extensive business engagement,” he said.
Christopher Fisher, president of Reading’s governing council, said: “I am delighted that an individual of David Bell’s stature and reputation has agreed to become the next vice-chancellor of the university.
“Not only does he bring the rich experience of an exceptional career, but also outstanding leadership qualities and a passion for education at all levels.”
In his current role, Sir David has been at the forefront of implementing education secretary Michael Gove’s reforms to allow the creation of free schools and push for more schools to opt out of local authority control as academies.
He will take over from acting vice-chancellor Tony Downes, who has been in the role since the departure of Gordon Marshall, who stepped down as vice-chancellor in August.
Sir David is not the first senior member of the civil service – which is being slimmed down under government austerity measures – to join the university sector in recent times.
Stephen Marston, former director general for higher education at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, joined the University of Gloucestershire as vice-chancellor in August.