Speaking at a meeting organized by the thinktank Politeia in central London yesterday, the universities and science minister said he was keen to maintain the independence of universities, citing research which indicated a strong link between autonomy and quality.
To this effect, he announced a string of initiatives which he believed would further institutional independence.
He confirmed that new rules scrapping VAT on shared services for universities would come into immediate effect.
The move, which was made to comply with European Union legislation, will open the door for greater collaboration between universities, which currently have to pay the 20 per cent tax if they outsource in-house administration services.
Announced by Chancellor George Osborne, Mr Willetts said the new rules would start immediately and that a new finance law was not needed.
A letter had been sent to Universities UK to confirm the decision.
The universities minister also announced an initiative to help cut unnecessary data collection by higher education institutions.
“I have discussed the issue of data collection with people from across the sector, and there is a widespread desire to go back to first principles,” he said.
“We need to establish precisely what information we already collect, what we actually need and why – and to reconcile the two, so that collection is useful and proportionate for all institutions concerned.”
He said that the Information Landscape project launched just last month was “seeking answers to these essential questions”.
“Participants will be identifying any 'quick wins' for easing the burden on universities, as well as publishing a road map for implementing a simpler model overall,” he said.
He added moves to lower the amount of state funding for universities would allow them to escape certain EU dictates.
With the state contributing only 40 per cent of the sector’s costs from this autumn, as opposed to the current 60 per cent, institutions would escape EU rules governing public bodies, which were defined as those funded by at least 50 per cent of public money.
“We are in a government that understands the value of autonomy,” Mr Willetts said.
He also announced a review of philanthropy in the higher education sector following the end of the government’s match funding scheme.
In the talk titled The Idea of a University, Mr Willetts said the university was “one of the most precious institutions that modern societies possess” and vital for “transmitting a body of knowledge, culture and skeptical understanding from one generation to another”.