The Government's commitment to involve employers in devising and funding degree courses has been likened to Oscar Wilde's depiction of second marriage as "a triumph of hope over experience".
Universities are being urged to embrace the role of business in setting the higher education agenda following Lord Leitch's review of skills which set a target for at least 40 per cent of the workforce to be educated to degree level by 2020.
Roger Brown, in his inaugural lecture as co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development at Liverpool Hope University, however, said that it was important for universities to retain at their core the pursuit of knowledge "for its own sake".
Citing Wilde's maxim, he argued that the vogue for employer engagement was just the latest manifestation of a longer-term drift from basic scholarly values.
Professor Brown, a former head of the now defunct Higher Education Quality Council and a former vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, said: "This is not mere snobbery ... The point is that no university can play this wider role if it is not succeeding in its core functions of creating and disseminating knowledge."
He added that it was "axiomatic" that academic staff should be involved in some form of serious scholarly inquiry and warned that an increasing concentration of research funding at a few universities was "unhealthy", polarising teaching and research roles.
He argued that this trend, coupled with increased competition for teaching funding, indicated a "clear Government agenda" to create a more sharply tiered higher education system.