Education secretary Charles Clarke has initiated a fundamental debate about the purpose of universities, amid continuing controversy over remarks he made last month in a speech at University College Worcester.
Mr Clarke, who was thought initially to have questioned the value of medieval history, accused some academics of harking back to a "medieval concept of the university as a community of scholars unfettered by difficulties and problems of the wider society".
Mr Clarke called for a higher education version of Jim Callaghan's "great debate" on schools in 1976. He is said to be playing devil's advocate in the discussion about what universities ought to be teaching and whether all courses should be funded from the public purse.
More than a dozen vice-chancellors and senior academics met Mr Clarke and higher eduction minister Margaret Hodge in London last week in the first of a series of private debates.
One vice-chancellor, who did not want to be named, said: "Mr Clarke said that higher education is there to help society adapt to change and that its main function is to serve the economic needs of the country but that others were telling him that universities were about a search for truth. Whether one can necessarily infer from that that Mr Clarke believes what he was saying, regarding his view of higher education's main function being economic, is unclear. He was, after all, posing questions to initiate a debate."
Another vice-chancellor, who also refused to be named, said: "I get the impression the government is casting around for the new idea because the white paper was put together in such a way that it seemed like broth cooked by too many chefs.
"I think the secretary of state is trying to stamp his own interpretation on it and I think he may be trying to win allies so he can justify going back to the taxpayer to say that this issue of learning for learning's sake is so important that we have to pay up to support it. The trouble is that there is no single view of what universities are for."
Mr Clarke is planning a series of further meetings addressing the argument that universities should be communities of scholars unfettered by wider society. He said in his Worcester speech: "(While) these are perfectly legitimate approaches and justifications, they don't, in my opinion, add up to an explanation or justification for how the state provides resources for universities in the modern world. I have to ask myself why the state should fund universities and what is the value of it."