The rector of Imperial College in London has dismissed some of England's new universities as "third-rate", and questioned the funding they get.
"They are not national treasures" said Sir Richard
Sir Richard Sykes has upset academics at Luton University by complaining about the amount of funding it receives for maths students.
It was part of an attack on the government's drive to get more than 50% of the eligible population into higher education.
Sir Richard told the Financial
Times: "First of all we have to back off this 50% target because there is not enough money for it.
"And I think it is draining the system, it is causing unbelievable stresses."
He described the government's policy as one of "bums on seats" and one which would not give the UK the edge over its global competitors.
"We are diverting resources in the university sector to the universities
that are having to bring these kids up to speed with what they should have
learnt in primary and secondary.
"And that's why you're moving money away from places like this to your
third-class institutions, because it costs more to teach those kids because
they've never been taught."
Sir Richard went on to complain about the amount of money being given to Luton University.
Money is better spent at Imperial than at Luton, said Sir Richard
"For a maths student coming to Imperial College we get
less than the maths student going to Luton.
"So is that the way the economy should be spending its money?
"Because a penny spent here is a hell of a lot better than a penny spent at Luton for the economy."
Most universities outside the elite were "not national treasures", he said, and it was nonsense to behave as if they were.
Professor Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Luton University, was suprised by the remarks: "It's an absolutely extraordinary
comment to make, not least because we don't do a maths degree at Luton, so he
didn't quite get his facts right."
Imperial's combined teaching and research grants meant that it got far more
cash per student from the taxpayer than did Luton, Professor Ebdon said.
Luton had a different mission to Imperial he said, aiming to be an access university offering the highest quality teaching.
Luton was ranked 14th out of more than 130 institutions for teaching
quality based on inspections by higher education watchdog the Quality Assurance
Agency, he added.
"Charles Clarke said that we were `bloody
brilliant' at teaching and everybody knew it."
"Imperial College has a mission to be a world-class research university and
they succeed in that.
"It's doing a different job and we need to understand that we have different
universities doing different things.
"This country badly needs more educated people."