Politicians risk throwing away “the jewel” that is the UK’s higher education system, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University has warned.
Prof Andrew Hamilton said any cuts to support for universities and their research amounted to a false economy.
He also criticised the inclusion of students in immigration targets.
In his final speech as vice-chancellor, Prof Hamilton said it was remarkable that the UK featured so prominently in university world rankings.
“You will usually find four UK universities in the world’s top 20 or so. That is remarkable for an island of this size,” he told an audience in Oxford.
“It is hard to think of any other walk of life where the UK is so eminent. It’s four times the number of top tennis players we have. And yet this success often seems to go unremarked or underappreciated.”
Prof Hamilton said the government’s looming Spending Review, as well as possible changes to the research council system and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, meant the future held a “more than usually uncertain and challenging period for UK higher education”.
He went on: “I can only emphasise that of all the false economies that might be available to ministers, few could be more mistaken than cutting support for universities and their research.
“If politicians and others do not fully understand or appreciate what a jewel they have in British higher education, they risk throwing it away.”
The outgoing vice-chancellor also commented on the government’s new Prevent guidelines for university campuses, which are intended to eradicate extremist ideology.
While it was important to protect young minds from indoctrination, freedom of speech must be protected, he warned.
“Legislation first introduced as ‘light touch’ and ‘proportionate’ must not erode the very values that we are seeking to protect.
“Freedom of expression and debate, academic independence and integrity – these are at the very heart of what makes a great university great.
“Anything that undermines them, whatever the intention, is more likely to exacerbate than eradicate the perceived danger.”
Prof Hamilton, who is stepping down as vice-chancellor of Oxford to become president of New York University, also praised the university saying it was “stronger than it has ever been”.
He will be succeeded in January by Prof Louise Richardson, currently vice-chancellor at St Andrew’s University.