Writing in this week's Times Higher Education, Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, responds to what he describes as "astonishing attacks on universities".
It follows opinion pieces in several national newspapers criticising the appointment of Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, as director of the Office for Fair Access.
"Accusations of dumbing down, Mickey Mouse degrees, 'polyology' and social engineering [have] abounded," writes Professor Thomas. "These articles...have betrayed some of the social prejudices of their writers."
Courses in sports tourism, carnival studies and computer game design at Bedfordshire were recently singled out by the Daily Mail as evidence of "dumbing down".
"One explanation for these media attacks is that there is still a view in some parts of society that individuals have a defined and predetermined place in the hierarchy," he says. "It appears some think that certain individuals should not be doing degrees at all and certainly not in particular subjects."
Professor Thomas, a former director of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, also criticises media claims about "social engineering" and the use of contextual data in admissions.
"Using the overall academic performance of an applicant's school as one variable in a very nuanced decision over admission will help to ensure diversity," he says.
Professor Thomas, who was born in the North East, adds: "The journey from my alma mater, Newcastle University, to the vice-chancellorship of the University of Bristol is no less life-transforming than the journey of a student from a house in Redcar where nobody has ever been to university who becomes a family solicitor in Yarm through a law degree at Teesside University.
"That is what social mobility is all about and we must embrace, respect and celebrate that."