Speaking at a conference titled Universities under Attack, academics called for a "fightback" in which the "neoliberal" language of "employability" and "value for money" are ditched in favour of advocating higher education for its own sake.
Arguing for universities' economic value meant "bowing down" before a flawed conception of education, argued Baroness Kennedy, principal of Mansfield College, Oxford.
"We have to reignite the language of what education is all about," she told delegates at the event at King's College London on 26 November, which was sponsored by the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books and Times Higher Education.
"The whole business of learning is about something greater - it's not just about having jobs."
Decrying the "marketisation" of the academy, Baroness Kennedy said: "This is about turning ourselves into businesses. We have been seduced into the idea that there is no other way. It comes out of Hayek and Thatcher being enamoured with the free market. Big money from this ideology feeds into thinktanks in education, health and welfare. Alternative ways of thinking do not get resourced."
Accusing the academic community of being "pusillanimous", she added: "We have not been loud enough in complaining about it."
Michael Wood, professor of English and comparative literature at Princeton University, said it was vital to argue for higher education on its own terms.
"What can we say without falling into the market trap? What are we to say about the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake? A society that does not value knowledge in this way will be outpaced by societies that do," he argued.
Simon Head, a scholar at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, also questioned why the UK's world-leading universities were being asked to follow a different model.
"We are being encouraged all the time to emulate the language of business. But we are doing well by all available markers, whereas British business is not represented in the most dynamic areas. Why should we defer when we are world-class to something that is not?"
Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history at the University of Oxford, argued that the marketisation agenda was being driven by big business, which sought to lower tax rates around the world by passing the costs of higher education to individuals.
"The huge educational debts focus students' minds to making money," he said. "This pushes them to study business or commerce-related subjects...replacing academic values with business values. The choice agenda is one of the screens for...current policy."
Referring to a "slow-motion administrative coup d'état" in which business is valued over everything, he added: "For-profit institutions will not lead to an increase in choice [but rather] a collapse in choice."
However, Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, urged "whingeing" scholars to embrace the changes. He said the higher education White Paper was a "fabulous opportunity" for them to "get together and say: 'We are going to create the third Oxbridge.'"
He called on UK institutions to follow "Harvard and create a university with a $25 billion endowment".