Sir Adrian Smith, currently director general for knowledge and innovation at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, will take up his post on 1 September.
Sir Adrian, a former principal of Queen Mary, University of London, is taking over from Geoffrey Crossick, who will step down in the summer after two years in the job.
As vice-chancellor, Sir Adrian will be the principal officer of the university, which comprises 18 self-governing colleges and institutes.
Sir Adrian, a statistician, said: “As an ex-head of Queen Mary and an ex-deputy vice-chancellor of the university, I am very aware of both the challenges and opportunities of the national and international higher education landscapes over the coming years.
“I look forward to working with all colleagues across the university to ensure we best position ourselves to overcome the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities.”
Announcing Sir Adrian’s appointment, Dame Jenny Abramsky, chair of the university’s board of trustees, said: “His immense knowledge of higher education and his long association with the university and its colleges make him ideally placed to lead the university through its future challenges.”
Sir Adrian, who led Queen Mary for 10 years, has also been director general for science and research at BIS and a professor of statistics and head of the department of mathematics at Imperial College London.
He studied for a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Selwyn College, Cambridge, before taking a PhD at University College London.
He was also professor of statistics and head of the department of mathematics at the University of Nottingham from 1977 to 1990.
A past president of the Royal Statistical Society, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 2001 and knighted in the 2011 New Year’s Honours.