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Big thinkers unite to defend 'one of UK's greatest assets'

New council aims to protect university values in the light of 'excessive and wasteful' reforms

Britain’s leading thinkers are launching a new campaigning body to protect the independence of universities as they face growing pressures from government attempts to move towards a more free market higher education system.

An array of academics and celebrated personalities have joined up to form the Council for the Defence of British Universities including Sir David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins, former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Lord Bragg and Alan Bennett.

They are anxious to protect the independence of research, arguing that academics should be free to work in fields regardless of whether they brings their institution economic benefits.

They also argue that the Government’s higher education reforms have ushered in “excessive inefficient and hugely wasteful “new accountability measures”, adding: “The very purpose of the university is grossly distorted by the attempt to create a market in higher education”.

In its mission statement, the new body, which will be officially launched on Tuesday argues that - while there are many different groups representing universities “no organisation exists to defend academic values and the institutional arrangements best suited to fostering them”.

It adds that the tuition fee and competition reforms to foster a freer market have been introduced “although opposed by student protests, devastated by academic criticism and unsupported by even the most elementary analysis of the empirical evidence”.

They argue that universities have become more dependent on student fee income and contributions from donors as a result of the new fees regime slashing government grants paid directly to universities.

They say they are fearful for the future of “one of the UK’s greatest assets - its universities”, adding that “a long series of heavy-handed reforms - driven by economic pressures and political objectives rather than the needs of universities and students - have traduced its (the university system’s) values”

The new council has 66 members - including eight members of the Order of Merit, 17 peers. Nobel prize winners, former vice-chancellors and former Cabinet ministers.  Historian Sir Keith Thomas and eminent scientist Lord Martin Rees - presidents of the British Association and Royal Society respectively have also signed up.

The launching of the new body coincides with a plea from former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy for ministers to “take seriously” the claims in a report which said there was an £1billion “black hole” in the budgeting for the higher education reforms. It argued it had over-estimated the income from repayments of student loans as well as under-estimated the level of loans students would need to cover the cost of their courses.