Education Secretary Charles Clarke's bullish attack on the "mediaeval concept of a community of scholars" is just a preliminary skirmish before the major battle. At stake is that most humanist of values: higher education.

Most of us share and cherish a notion of the university as a place for study, for disinterested seeking after truth, for questioning and discovery: a place that is central to our culture.

But now the government has redefined the whole concept. The purpose of the contemporary university, according to Clarke and his ministers, is to drive the economy. Learning for its own sake is "a bit dodgy"; courses must now chase jobs.

The White Paper on Higher Education is a flawed strategy resting on four contradictory assumptions. These are that the market must decide which courses survive; the market must grow until 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds experience higher education; businesses must benefit; and institutions should specialise in either research or teaching.

If the first of these principles is applied then unfashionable or difficult courses, from Engineering to Classics, Mathematics to Mandarin, will disappear, regardless of how important they may be to the economy. Even if the unrealistic 50 per cent target is met in the next decade, the majority of those young people will emerge with degrees in Media Studies and Popular Music, whether or not this serves the economy. They are the market and that will be their choice.

To meet this target, universities are required to widen access to non-traditional students — hardly compatible with plans to allow the better-placed institutions to triple the current level of tuition fees after the next election. Poorer students will be forced to attend cheaper universities and will end up in debt, with diminished prospects.

The worst travesty of all, though, is the proposed separation of teaching and research. Research funding will be concentrated in a few elite institutions which will also benefit from links with business. 'Knowledge transfer' is just a new name for industry-funded research.

The rest will become teaching establishments, reverting to polytechnic status but without support for the many new areas of inquiry and research that the modern universities have pioneered. Two-year Foundation Degrees, designed to cope with expansion, will be delivered in further education colleges. The old two-tier class system will become three-tier and the most disadvantaged will have been sold down the river.

Whether vocational or not, undergraduate education is more than technical training, more than the acquisition of skills. It is a disciplined sharpening of the mind, an encouragement to question and reason, a process that is profoundly transformational and, in the most humanist of ways, a preparation for life.

Our present cabinet, most of whom have been so well served by their research-rich university experience, are planning to perform that most odious of tricks. They've got to the top and are about to remove the ladder.