Sir Alan Wilson, vice-chancellor of Leeds University, was this week appointed the first director-general for higher education, charged with driving forward the government's student access and research concentration agendas.
Sir Alan is a supporter of the government's top-up fees policy, but he is also research committee chairman for Universities UK, which this week slammed government plans for further concentrating research funding.
Sir Alan, who will advise on and implement higher education policy, said the creation of the new director-general post reflected the central role of higher education in government thinking.
He said: "There is no doubt this is a critical time for the development of the sector as fundamental changes are taking place that will alter many aspects of university life. The challenge is to fund the government's priorities for widening participation and tackling social exclusion properly while maintaining a world-class system. I hope that my years of experience in higher education will help the sector contribute effectively to these agendas."
With controversial top-up fee legislation due to be announced in next month's Queen's speech, combined with growing anger in higher education over research funding plans, Sir Alan, who was born to working-class parents in Bradford, faces a baptism of fire.
He said: "If there is a choice between increasing fees and maintaining quality and access, I have to vote for fees.
"We have to find effective ways of resolving complex issues and I am looking forward to helping ministers with ongoing debates around controversial areas such as research concentration and student fees."
The director-general's position was first advertised last spring as part of a Department for Education and Skills reorganisation, which signalled greater prominence for the university sector. But the DFES found it difficult to find the right person for thejob.
Sir Alan, a maths graduate who did theoretical physics before switching to social science, was approached as his retirement drew near. He will take up the post part time in February until stepping down as vice-chancellor in June.
David Normington, permanent secretary at the DFES, said Sir Alan's appointment would strengthen the department's ability to offer leadership in higher education and to develop stronger links with institutions.
"His distinguished record at Leeds in building the student population from 11,000 to 32,000 and in developing a highly-rated research university will be invaluable to us as we take forward policies in the government's white paper," he said.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, described Sir Alan's appointment as very good news. "He has made an outstanding contribution to the world of UUK over a long period. He will bring to this post an in-depth knowledge of the sector that can only benefit higher education in the future."