The former poet laureate Andrew Motion has condemned the government's "mercantile" approach towards universities, which he says forces them to "earn their keep", in an attack before the launch of a new campaign against the effects of excessive market forces on higher education.

Motion, now professor of creative writing at the University of London's Royal Holloway college, one of his many roles, said ministers were taking a short-term view of how universities should work, to the detriment of prosperity in the future and the wider cultural life of the nation.

Motion is among an eminent group of 65 academics, writers and broadcasters who have founded the Council for the Defence of British Universities, which is officially launched on Tuesday. They include winners of the Nobel prize and Fields medal, current and past British Academy presidents and eight Order of Merit members, among them household names such as Sir David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins, Dame AS Byatt, Alan Bennett, Lord Bragg and Michael Frayn.

The group has been assembled by Sir Keith Thomas, the historian and former British Academy president, who believes government policy means the purpose of universities is "distorted by the attempt to create a market inhigher education".