The universities and science minister said he wanted to “tear down” the barriers between employers and institutions, pledging to remove the “crackers” regulations that got in the way.
In his main speech at the conference in Manchester today, Mr Willetts said: “I want every business person to know they can knock on the doors of a university and ask: ‘We need to try a new manufacturing process – can you test it? We need training – can you provide it? This is the problem our company faces – can you help us crack it?’”
However, Mr Willetts insisted that universities must always “have space” for scientists working on blue skies research, as well as arts, humanities and social science research.
He also said he recognised that universities were “among our greatest national assets”, adding that he expected this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings, which will be published on Thursday, to show more British universities in the top 200.
On the government’s reforms to fees and funding, he said a “fair deal” had been struck for students while the removal of some quotas on student numbers would create choice.
And he attacked Labour for continuing to “flirt” with a graduate tax, which he said would mean universities would “look up to Whitehall for funds not out to students”.
The speech did not contain any major policy announcements but Mr Willetts did claim that the number of apprenticeship places now equalled those at universities.
The coalition had created an extra 100,000 in its first year, he said.
He added that the government was also receiving so many “good quality bids” - including from universities – for higher level apprenticeships that these now totalled 10,000.