TONY Abbott, the former Australian prime minister, has joined eminent scholars in a backlash against calls to remove a century-old statue in Oxford that students say promotes racism.

The student group Rhodes Must Fall is campaigning to remove a statue of 19th Century imperialist Cecil Rhodes, which sits above Oriel College in High Street.

They claim the tribute to Rhodes - a former mining magnate and politician in South Africa whose scholarship has given some 8,000 international students places at Oxford - is symbolic of racism and colonialism.

The college sparked an international debate last week when it bowed to pressure from the group agreed to remove a plaque dedicated to Rhodes. 

But Mr Abbott, a former Rhodes scholar himself, yesterday told The Independent: "Oxford would damage its standing as a great university if it were to substitute moral vanity for fair-minded enquiry."

Mr Abbott's intervention follows others from several senior Oxford University academics, including Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, Professor Ngaire Woods, dean of the Blavatnik School of Government, and Sir John Bell, Regius Chair of Medicine.

Sir Michael Howard, an honorary fellow of Oriel and former Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, said it amounted to an "attempt to rewrite the history of the college and the university" in a letter to the Times.

Mr Abbott said: "The university and its students should prefer improving today’s orthodoxies to imposing them on our forebears.

"It’s a pity that Rhodes was, in many respects, a man of his times. Students of Oriel should be clear-eyed about Rhodes’ faults and failings but proud of his achievements.

“The university should remember that its mission is not to reflect fashion but to seek truth and that means striving to understand before rushing to judge.

“Racism is a dreadful evil but we all know that now. It’s hardly virtuous to be against racism today. 

"Rhodes was not a campaigner against racism but many of the scholars who are his legacy have been."

It came after an Oxford professor defended the student anti-racism campaign but called for more education about the 19th Century imperialist, Cecil Rhodes.

Professor Susan Rudy, executive director of the Rhodes Project, said the students have a valid point but they use should use the debate to educate people about the politician's past.

She told the Oxford Mail: "The students have a point, we need to be aware of his racist history and that is absolutely true.

"Lets use it as a moment for the public to be educated about it and not pretend it did not happen."

Student campaign group, Rhodes Must Fall Oxford, said they were disappointed the college had not taken down the statue of the politician.

A spokesman for the group said: "The action taken with the plaque demonstrates that Oriel have accepted our arguments, that symbols and monuments matter and that to memorialise Rhodes as a politician and businessman is offensive and violent."

The college will run a six-month consultation to consider the removal of the statue which faces on to High Street.

But tearing down the statue could be more difficult than some might hope anyway, as it is part of a Grade II* listed building.

That would require planning consent from Oxford City Council and may trigger interventions from national heritage bodies.