The University of Leicester has been crowned University of the Year at the 2008 Times Higher Education Awards.
The gala dinner in the Great Room of London's Grosvenor House Hotel was attended by more than 1,300 people from across the sector.
Nominees for the 17 awards came from all over the country, and the winners from universities of every shape, size and mission.
Both David Lammy, the new Higher Education Minister, and David Eastwood, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, gave short introductory speeches. Professor Eastwood spelt out universities' role in "transforming lives, energising communities, pushing the limits of understanding, partnering with business and reaching out globally".
As world economies enter an uncertain period, he said: "Higher education will increasingly be seen as a beacon offering the country hope." He also thanked Times Higher Education for its "supportive contribution" as a "critical friend of the sector".
A highlight of the evening was the presentation of the lifetime achievement award to Peter Hennessy, the eminent historian who moved from a career in journalism to academia 15 years ago, and who taught his last undergraduate class earlier this year.
Ann Mroz, editor of Times Higher Education, said Leicester, the University of the Year, "embodied the spirit of the awards".
She said: "Leicester's turnaround in the past decade has been extraordinary, and it is encouraging to note that the university has risen through the league tables without feeling the need to compromise on its widening-participation initiatives."
Congratulating all those who were shortlisted, Professor Eastwood added: "Thanks, too, to all who drive, animate and sustain higher education.
"Ours is a high and noble calling: but tonight we can have fun."