Professor Sir Martin Harris, former Manchester university vice-chancellor, has been named as the head of the controversial new Office for Fair Access to higher education.
Sir Martin, 60, will be expected to ensure that leading universities take a greater proportion of pupils from poorer families and will have powers to fine them up to pound;500,000 if they fail to do so.
As director of Offa, he can also stop universities charging students top-up fees of up to pound;3,000 each per year if he believes they should be doing more to widen access.
The role of the regulator, dubbed Oftoff, has already been attacked by the higher education establishment, with Michael Beloff, warden of Trinity college, Oxford, telling the Government to "get its tanks off our lawns".
Last week, Kim Howells, higher education minister, promised to review targets for how many disadvantaged pupils universities are expected to take.
Sir Martin, a former chair of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (now Universities UK), has two sons, both of whom attended state schools. One went on to study at Oxford and the other at Cambridge. He said: "While one of my key aims in this post will be to implement a process for setting up access agreements to safeguard fair access, I hope as director to do this by working as collaboratively as possible with institutions."
Chris Grayling, Tory higher education spokesman, said the party would abolish Offa if it won the next election. "It is very disappointing that such an eminent figure in the university sector should accept an appointment that is so unpopular among vice-chancellors and principals," he said.