Mr Patten said that wider entry into universities formed a central plank in the Prime Minister's aim of a classless society, enabling people to rise on their own merit.
His remarks were delivered as the higher education funding councils disclosed that they were planning to set aside money to help some of the former polytechnics develop research facilities, as part of a new university funding regime.
Universities in particular had formerly assumed that 'increasing public funds would continue to flow as of right and without question': that complacency was 'dead', Mr Patten said. Higher education 'now has to work hard to attract students, to attract funding, and to ensure high standards of quality'.
Mr Patten was speaking at the inauguration of the new University of Portsmouth, one of 29 former polytechnics which are being given university status this year, in a Government reform which is partly designed to increase access to higher education.
The end of what Mr Patten called the 'infamous' division between universities and polytechnics would enable all higher education institutions to compete equally for students and research.
Mr Patten, a former geography don at Hertford College, Oxford, recognised that the pace of change had shocked many academics and administrators. But he insisted that a more accessible system was essential to national well- being.