Attempts to rate university courses according to their "usefulness" would jeopardise the fundamental values that underpin higher education, higher education and industry leaders have said.
A draft joint statement on ethics and the role of higher education from the Council for Industry and Higher Education and its sister organisations in the US, Australia, Europe and Japan, puts the international academic community in conflict with education secretary Charles Clarke's attack on learning for learning's sake in a lecture he gave last month at University College Worcester.
The statement, which comes as the CIHE prepares to meet Mr Clarke next week, has been compiled in consultation with higher education leaders including Brighton University vice-chancellor David Watson, Kingston University vice-chancellor Peter Scott, and Ron Barnett, professor of higher education at London University's Institute of Education.
The statement says that freedom to teach and research is as much part of an open society as freedom of speech or freedom of the press. It says universities should provide a "critical conscience of society" and calls for business "to have an eye to the long-term impact of any undue constraint on academic activities" and for universities "to be more vigilantI in their defence" of this role.
The statement adds that fundamental values "must not be put in jeopardy by the pressures on universities and colleges to separate research, scholarship and teaching, to overfocus on the development of employability in students, or on learning from the web at the expense of interpersonal debate, or other pressures that threaten to distort institutional policies and practices".
Such values could easily be forgotten by businesses that might engage in a "war for talent" and focus on graduates who have certain qualifications, skills and employability characteristics, the statement warns.
"They can go unappreciated by students and others who may think of higher education just in terms of opening doors to better jobs with higher pay," it adds.
CIHE chief executive Richard Brown said the statement was the first attempt to define higher education in terms of its role and ethical code. "We are talking about the fundamental values that are inherent in higher education and should be passed on from one generation to another, from academic to academic and on to the students. Ministers might fall into the trap of taking too instrumental a view on the role of higher education. There is something more fundamental about it, that is deeper than the development of employability or the enhancement of UK competitiveness."
The working draft statement is due to be considered by the United States Business-Higher Education Forum next month.