Open and accountable decision-making in universities should be enshrined in legislation or funding conditions, the Council for Academic Autonomy has recommended.
The pressure group says such legislation should ensure academic staff have the right to elect representatives to all university decision-making bodies.
CAA's call follows its report Academic Democracy, which found only half of the higher education institutions it surveyed had elected members on committees dealing with resource allocations to academic departments, and with appointments and promotions.
The report was compiled at the Labour Party's request. Most of the 46 institutions had elected academic staff on committees handling academic policy and development. Occasionally academic representatives were appointed rather than elected.
"There is some evidence that elected staff are often kept away from the key areas of finance, staffing and promotion, whereas they are nearly always involved with academic policy and development," the report concludes.
"It also seems that it is only in the old universities that democratic institution of elected deans, as representatives of their academic colleagues in the decision-making processes of the university, exists. In the rest of the sector, deans are part of the management structure, and hence an important safety valve is missing."
It adds: "CAA believes it is vitally important for the health of the universities that their affairs are open and accountable and that members of staff do not become outsiders, excluded from contributing to decisions whch affect their academic life."
The survey found half the institutions surveyed had no staff assembly, 16 had one by statute and seven by custom. CAA called for staff assemblies to be held at least annually and added: "Staff assemblies are often non-existent or very weak, although they offer ordinary members of staff their only chance to participate directly in any debate about major questions of policy or accountability."
CAA would like to see all academic staff having access to agendas, minutes and papers of important decision-making committees, a call shared by the recent guide on good practice in governance published by the Committee of University Chairmen. The CUC report however made it clear that elected staff or student governors were not to be considered as delegates.