Sir Ron Dearing this week appealed to universities to give renewed emphasis to the old Robbins objective of transmitting common standards of citizenship in the wake of the murder of London headmaster Philip Lawrence.
One way of achieving this would be to reach out to excluded communities by setting up units on "working-class estates" where, for many young people, university is still "a salmon's leap".
The call, in a week when political and religious groups have rallied to the cause of civic and moral renewal, came as Sir Ron backed the government's draft proposals for revising the Robbins objectives in a way which will define the purpose of higher education in the new millennium.
Sir Ron said the Robbins objective of transmitting common notions of culture and citizenship was "not straightforward" given that the United Kingdom had become "more culturally diverse" since the 1960s and had suffered from "moral relativism".
But the stabbing of Mr Lawrence earlier this year made the issue "pretty relevant", and he warned: "I don't think we can duck the responsibility given the centrality of higher education to national life."
He stressed that universities had a critical role in teaching students to treasure democratic society, and particularly the rule of law, since it was in the campus environment that many of them first exercised their democratic right to vote.
But to spread "common" ideas, universities will have to do more to attract students from all communities.
He said: "I'm told in some working-class estates there isn't an HE culture. In fact, there might even be an anti-HE culture. We've got to go in and establish units there."
A modernised Robbins objective could be "promoting culture and high standards in all aspects of society", according to a government discussion paper Purposes of Higher Education, produced by the DFEE, which this week won Sir Ron's general approval.
The other three Robbins objectives - instruction in employment skills, advanced learning and research, and promoting the general powers of the mind - would stand more or less as they are, although Sir Ron highlighted the added importance of the first and said he may extend the last to include "the general powers of the whole person as well".