But any vacuum in opposition to the changes is being filled by a growing number of grassroots campaigns offering alternative visions for the future of the sector.
Alongside the Campaign for the Public University, which is backed by a host of high-profile academics, is The University Project, set up to explore responses to the "set of forces that are coming together to disrupt higher education as we know it".
A conference held in London last week heard how new technologies are helping scholars on the fringes of the academy to recapture old ideas about "the promise at the heart of the university". Organised by Dougald Hine, a former BBC journalist and founder of the project, the event asked: "Could the spirit of enquiry and the community which make up the idea of the university find a more hospitable home outside our current institutions?"
Mr Hine said the conference revolved around the "old-fashioned idea that the social good of the university is that there should be places within society that are dedicated to the cultivation of knowledge.
"It's offered in contrast to the idea that the promise of the university is to enhance national economic competitiveness or to enhance the earning potential or economic security of graduates."
He cited projects such as the "student as producer" initiative at the University of Lincoln as examples of how academics can "articulate a different vision for the function of higher education".
But he said: "I don't know how you would reconcile (those projects) with the priorities that governments have pressed on higher education in this country. These projects are growing out of the dedication to the idea or spirit of a university."
This was something that "has been marginalised as universities have been subject to a narrower economic rationale and a logic of productivity that leaves little room for the time for play and for the unexpected, which actually makes for a living academic culture".