In his first major speech as executive director of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, Alex Bols said the sector should not adopt a “wait and see” attitude to policy.
He also called for an end to the attitude among some in the sector that the “ambition to be ‘elite’” was “something to be ashamed of”.
In a speech to a conference in London on 14 June, Mr Bols – former head of higher education at the National Union of Students – made the case for a vision of higher education based on “aspiring to the very highest levels of achievement – about being the best, offering the best, and expecting the best”.
“We want to see UK universities home to excellent teaching and learning,” he said.
“This of course means ensuring that academic staff deliver for students in the ways they have a right to expect, but it also means expecting the very best of students themselves. Students should be prepared for a rigorous academic challenge which pushes them to reach well beyond their comfort zone.”
Mr Bols, who formally begins the role on 18 June, also warned of the dangers of lowering entry requirements to the most academically demanding institutions, which has been put forward as a way to boost access for students from poorer backgrounds.
“Of course we work hard to support people with talent and potential to reach the standards required to gain a place at the best university that matches their needs, but lowering the academic bar to entry does them, and indeed institutions, a disservice – and we must guard against this,” he told the HE Beyond 2015: New Student Choices, New Economics, New Technologies event.
On coalition government policy, he said that although it was right to continue assessing and reacting to recent reforms, the sector would be “kidding” itself to think that there was no more change ahead.
“It’s impossible to predict the twists and turns of coalition politics, but we know for certain that there will be a general election by 2015.
“We also know that 2014 will see the research excellence framework determine how much of higher education funding is to be allocated.
“And there is every likelihood that another Comprehensive Spending Review will precede both of these, creating a very different financial environment for higher education.
“Each of these poses a considerable challenge. Combined, they could make the changes of the past two years look like marginal tinkering. We cannot afford to stand still now and rush to react once it is too late.”