Student contracts inject "too much legalism and too little trust" into the relationship between students and universities, according to the former head of the student complaints body.
Baroness Deech, who was the independent adjudicator for higher education until earlier this year, said formal written contracts were useful in that they spelt out the contribution expected from students, dispelling the notion that university education was a one-way process that could be "delivered".
But emphasis on formal contracts might lead to more "micro-management" and "box ticking" and "not necessarily to greater quality or public benefit", she warned.
Delivering the Lord Upjohn lecture for the Association of Law Teachers, Lady Deech said: "I am inclined to think (contracts) inject too much legalism and too little trust into the student-university relationship, too much inflexibility, too much exercise of power."
Lady Deech reflected that graduates once described their university as their "alma mater", responsible for raising and nurturing young people to adulthood and civic responsibility, and complaints were rare. "The satisfaction for lecturers lay in power ... lifestyle, which was good, research and scholarship," she said.
Today, she argued, there was no longer a good salary for lecturers. "Research has been mutated by the demands of the research assessment exercise and university professors do not seem to be so highly regarded by society," she said.
Students' complaints tended to relate to paper qualifications, which were their "one focus," and some felt that having paid for a course, they had a legitimate expectation of a good result.
"Much of the unease expressed by today's students comes from a misunderstanding of the purposes of higher education. We teachers hold the remedy in our hands by remembering and insisting on its true purposes: education, not training; knowledge, not skills; teaching, not rote learning," Lady Deech said.
Nine British universities employ student contracts, and 17 more are considering introducing one.