Micheál Martin has called for a Department of Higher Education and Research.
The Fianna Fáil leader has said third level education has been marginalised for far too long.
His vision is part of a broader department reconfiguration should his party take control of the Dáil following the next general election.
Mr Martin said higher education is the driver of economic development.
"Trying to bring investment in higher education and research [is] central to the political debate because it has been marginalised now for far too long," said Mr Martin.
"Yet historically it has been the driver of our economic development and in the future will be the driver of our economic development, as well as creating a more inclusive and informed society."
The Cork TD was speaking at an Irish Universities' Association event today.
The IUA revealed that there has been a 45% decrease in funding to Irish universities over the past 10 years.