Education secretary Charles Clarke has again attacked learning for learning's sake by saying that the public purse should not fund "ornamental" subjects such as medieval history.
Mr Clarke told a gathering at University College Worcester that he believed the state should pay only for higher education that had a "clear usefulness". He reportedly said: "I don't mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them." This follows his earlier comments that studying classics is a waste of time.
Mr Clarke, who studied maths and economics, was immediately dismissed as a "philistine thug" by a Cambridge medievalist, and another leading historian said he was leading a group of "illiberal political Yahoos".
Mr Clarke's comments were not reported when they were made in early April, but the Department for Education and Skills said this week that Mr Clarke stood by his words.
"He is basically saying that universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change," a spokesman said.
"Some might argue that universities are essentially communities of scholars that should go on without the involvement of the state in any way; that they are a group of people who come together to think thoughts in whatever way they do it. Mr Clarke thinks that is a perfectly legitimate definition of a university, but it doesn't of itself add up to an explanation or justification for the state providing any resources for universities."
His comments about classics, made in a newspaper interview in January, prompted questions in the House of Commons. He said he would be sad if philosophy died out with the introduction of £3,000-a-year tuition fees but added: "I am very much less occupied by classics."
Jinty Nelson, president of the Royal Historical Society and professor of medieval history at King's College London, said: "Knowledge of history is essential to a humane and civilised society. But further - and Mr Clarke should know this - it contributes hugely, directly and indirectly, to the national economy through the heritage industry and tourism."
Anne Duggan, professor of medieval history at King's, said Mr Clarke seemed to want a nation of "unthinking robots".
Rees Davies, professor of medieval history at Oxford University and chairman of the National Curriculum History Committee for Wales, said:
"Education at all levels can never in a civilised society be merely or even mainly about furthering the economy."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said she was appalled by the "narrow utilitarian view".
Michael Biddiss, professor of history at Reading University and former president of the Historical Association, said: "One of the many merits of historical scholarship is its capacity for encouraging scholars to spot when callow judgements are being peddled from high places.
"Perhaps Mr Clarke and his spinners at the DFES are hoping to inspire the band of political Yahoos who, in making new Labour ever-more illiberal, must feel increasingly tempted to parrot Nikita Khrushchev's lament that 'Historians are dangerous people - they are capable of upsetting everything'."
Research from Manchester Metropolitan University reveals that history turns out more directors of top companies than any other undergraduate qualification. Gill Evans, professor of medieval history at Cambridge University, said: "With a philistine thug like that in charge of the education budget, we need to protect the jobs of all the historians of thought and all the wordsmiths we can."
Among historians in the government are chancellor Gordon Brown and deputy prime minister John Prescott.