"Slipshod thinking" that sees universities as "engines of innovation and economic development" is undermining the most important contributions they make to society.
This is the message of a paper from Europe's leading research-intensive institutions, which calls for a reinforced understanding of the fundamental role of universities based around "basic research" that "invigorates teaching".
The paper, "What are universities for?", is published this week by the League of European Research Universities (Leru), a group of 20 leading institutions in Europe, including the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh. It was written by Geoffrey Boulton, vice-principal of Edinburgh, and Colin Lucas, a former vice-chancellor of Oxford.
It argues that while universities can help to create an environment supportive of innovation, they can never - contrary to much current thinking - be the driver of innovation.
"Innovation is dominantly a process of business engagement with markets. Universities can play only a minor active role," the report says.
"It is erroneous to think of innovation ... as a supply-driven process, fuelled by inventions, often created in universities, and in particular in science and technology. Although few would admit it, this can be the only rationale for some government policies of recent years."
The paper also chastises the "perfunctory nod" given to humanities and social sciences by governments. "(They) are as important as science and technology and are as central to the wellbeing of society," it argues.
Professor Boulton told Times Higher Education that the paper was meant for three audiences: universities, the European Commission and national governments. "It is saying (to universities) you must not forget what your fundamental role is and you must ensure that you are robust and strong in arguing for it."
He added that the paper was aimed at the European Commission because of the "increasing role" it played in research and education and that it was "particularly relevant" to the UK because of the reviews of higher education being conducted by the Universities Secretary.
The paper argues that many governments regard the sector as a "supermarket", identifying particular outputs that they think are useful and want to promote and ignoring others they are not interested in.
"By being partial and selective and viewing universities only as instruments serving a series of very specific outcomes, the creativity of universities is being undermined," Professor Boulton said.
But the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) both disagreed that universities had only a minor role to play in innovation. Richard Brown, chief executive of the CIHE, said: "Our future rests on innovation, and universities and businesses have to play that game together."
He said he was "not surprised" at Leru's stance and it was "good" for senior academics to stand up and remind people of the role of universities. But he added that universities were businesses "just like commercial organisations" and "in the real world" they had a role both to develop enterprising and employable graduates and to work with businesses in the "chain of developing new ideas and wealth".
Tim Bradshaw, head of innovation at the CBI, said: "Innovation is not just about business engagement with markets; universities are a key component of a healthy innovation ecosystem."