Debate about today's students is too often dominated by "a discourse of condescension and disappointment", and revolves around a series of "moral panics", delegates at a conference heard.
Addressing a Higher Education Policy Institute-Times Higher Education event on the student experience, Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, said recent discussion of the topic had generated "more heat than light", and that commentators were often guilty of nostalgia and selective memory.
Talk of a "generational split" frequently boiled down to the idea that today's students simply "aren't as good as we were," he said.
"We have plenty of nostalgic and ideologically loaded analyses of what new and graduating students can't do. There is precious little account taken of what today's 'screenagers' can do that many of their predecessors - and at least some of their teachers - can't," Sir David said, in a lecture titled "Students aren't what they used to be - and never were".
Worries about student behaviour - from initiation rites to plagiarism - access to higher education, debt, standards and "Mickey Mouse" degrees were among the sources of moral panic, he added.
The "inaccessibility" of Oxbridge and "top" universities to students from poor backgrounds was lamented at the same time as "the interests of those who have expensively purchased the positional advantage associated with high grades", said Sir David.
On the one hand, higher education was seen as "a hotbed of commodification, instrumentality and utilitarianism", but on the other it was accused of being unworldly.
"(Students) are criticised for working for money while studying ... while at the same time they are urged to be independent and self-reliant. Meanwhile ... there are panics about either student apathy ... or fundamentalist zeal and the function of higher education institutions in incubating terrorist cells and the like. In those circumstances, higher education leaders and managers wonder if they can ever win the battle for media hearts and minds," he said.
But claims that students had abandoned principled protest and cared only about finance and facilities were "overdrawn", Sir David argued. He said the current generation of students was "as idealistic" as its predecessors, worked "extraordinarily hard" and felt just as strongly about justice and fairness.
"The difference is that ... no established political party is set up to capture the outrage or the enthusiasm," he said. "Most importantly, (today's generation of students) knows that the world does not owe it a living, as was the case when about 10 per cent of each age cohort had a higher education."
Students played a constructive role in "reinventing" their universities and always had, he said, adding: "We should be working with them ... and we should think hard about projecting our own disappointments and hang-ups about a world we have lost on to them and their teachers."
Sir David ended the address last week with an appeal to members of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, which is scrutinising students and universities. "Do they go down the populist and - I would suggest - unempirical path of feeding moral panic, not least by recycling the very few cases where things have gone seriously wrong ... scoring cheap points and evoking a world which we and they have lost?
"Or do they ... express some generosity of spirit towards an extraordinarily high-performing public service and try to understand the subtle, complex and, on the whole, successful evolving renegotiation of the relationship between students and their higher education?
"To do the latter would be to go much more with the grain of the history of the university enterprise than with the ethos of contemporary politics," he said.