Vice-chancellors believe universities exist to create and transmit knowledge. The sector contains a diversity of missions but there are common strands, says Universities UK.
"Universities educate and train people with the skills they need to participate fully in society and give them the skills employers need.
"A university education involves learning in an environment informed by new research and in which the majority of staff are engaged in research and scholarly activities.
"Universities produce the research that drives innovation in the wider economy and helps improve the nation's quality of life. Being a university is also about reaching into local communities, getting their hands dirty combating social exclusion."
Diana Green , vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said: "The thing that differentiates universities from colleges or private training providers is that we have a responsibility to challenge and lead on change."
Bahram Bekhradnia , director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:
"Universities have a legitimacy and perspective that go beyond the scope of a democratically elected government. Universities are transgenerational, maintaining values and cultures."
Adrian Smith , principal of Queen Mary, University of London, said:
"Universities are simultaneously trying to academically defend the faith and, in the afternoons, give courses to get the bums on seats."
Deian Hopkin , vice-chancellor of South Bank University, said: "One might equally ask what are governments for? There is an implied suggestion in the question that one could do without universities and that would be unthinkable."
Anne Lindsay , senior policy adviser at the learning and skills group in the Confederation of British Industry, said: "If a candidate has done a classics degree but can demonstrate brilliant analytical skills, that's great. Half of employers don't specify disciplines."
And Richard Wilson , business policy executive of the Institute of Directors, said: "The purpose of universities is not simply to churn out people for the market. If an individual wants to study something they think is worthwhileI we are relaxed about that."
John Enderby , vice-president of the Royal Society, was concerned that the government should not reduce the mission of universities to the provision of trained manpower for wealth creation.
He said: "The jury's out on what will happen. The devil is in the detail of how the white paper is implemented."
Sally Hunt , general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "It is through teaching and research that people are taught to think and seek after the truth, which is desperately important in any mature state."
Tom Wilson , head of universities at Natfhe, said: "Higher education refreshes the parts utilitarianism cannot reach."
Chris Weavers , National Union of Students vice-president, said: "Students learn numerous transferable skills and many life skills during their time at university, and they should be free to pursue the course that interests them and that they are best suited to."