Vice-chancellors and politicians are fighting behind the scenes to overturn "misconceived" plans for a European Institute of Technology.
The European Commission has already conceded that the institute, designed to challenge the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, should be virtual - thereby sidestepping the debate about where it should be based.
This compromise, however, has failed to silence critics. Universities UK, the vice-chancellors' umbrella group, has written to Prime Minister Tony Blair and other ministers expressing fierce opposition to the project, arguing that it is "a distraction from the real business of funding research".
Drummond Bone, president of UUK and vice-chancellor of Liverpool University, said: "Looking across the Atlantic to MIT and trying to engineer it in Europe is simplistic. While the Commission seems to have played down the initial comparisons made with MIT, what is proposed in the document will almost certainly have none of the attributes that have made MIT so successful."
He added: "It is inevitable that the initiative will, by its very nature, lead to a high degree of top down bureaucratic intervention, causing it to be driven by political rather than scientific considerations."
The Government has yet to give any indication of its position on the proposed institute. Westminster insiders said this week that it might be difficult for Mr Blair to oppose the plan, which Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has presented as a key plank of his mission to reform Europe's struggling economies.
But Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, has made no secret of his opposition. During a recent evidence session on Europe he told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee: "It is based on a very simplistic idea that if you had a body that was a European equivalent of MIT, that somehow would put everything right. I find this a little naive.Quite frankly, we have some perfectly good institutes across Europe."
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, described the idea as "interesting", but added: "We have a number of questions about whether the EIT proposal is the best way forward and we will be encouraging the Commission to do further work on some alternative approaches. There will need to be a serious and full debate on the proposal before final decisions are taken."
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Coimbra Group of elite research universities in Europe has sent a letter to heads of member institutions urging them to oppose the EIT proposals. Guido Langouche called on vice-chancellors to lobby their respective heads of state who are meeting in Brussels this week.