Higher education in the United Kingdom will be threatened if it is included in global moves to liberalise service industries, Universities Scotland has warned.
Scotland's principals say that bringing higher education under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (Gats) could open its funding to market competition, making the driving force financial rather than educational.
Liberalisation of trade in the sector could outlaw internal cross-subsidies in universities, which would harm teaching, and undermine quality regulations.
A letter to the Scottish Executive from Universities Scotland director David Caldwell says: "Universities Scotland believes that the primary purpose of higher education is to promote learning and create knowledge and not to generate profit for shareholders."
The letter comes amid fears that Universities UK is under pressure from the Department of Trade and Industry to support Gats.
A UUK spokesperson said it had had a "constructive dialogue" with the DTI and Department for Education and Skills about including higher education in the Gats negotiations. UUK would "consult members nationally for their views" and would give "a common nationwide response to the government in March".
The Association of University Teachers and National Union of Students have been lobbying the DFES, warning against higher education being categorised as a "commercial activity".
They have been heartened by Universities Scotland's stance. They hope vice-chancellors across the country will follow its lead.
Sally Hunt, AUT assistant general secretary, said: "Unless there is a brake on the unrestricted intervention of the free market into higher education, then we can say goodbye to the notion of academic freedom."
The AUT has urged the DFES at the very least to investigate the potential impact of Gats.