The freemasons are looking for formal university partners to develop their new masonic research centre in London.
The Canonbury Masonic Research Centre, in Islington, North London, was launched with money from the freemasons' assistant grand master, Lord Northampton, but the masons are looking for formal links with higher education to establish and accredit masters degree courses.
The masons also want academics to help write and referee a new masonic research journal.
The University of Kent is already involved. Religious studies lecturer Leon Schulamm has been appointed academic director. He has begun creating a masters course based on Kent's six-year-old "mysticism and religious experience" MA. It is understood that several other university lecturers have agreed to run courses.
Dr Schulamm said that negotiations with a "well-known university" for accreditation were well developed. The course is expected to be running in October 2000. It will be almost entirely theology-based, with modules in ancient Egyptology, mystical philosophy, Tibetan Buddhism and freemasonry. Research work will be in the humanities: social sciences will not be encouraged.
Dr Schulamm, who is not a freemason, admitted that there were potential conflicts for academic freedom. "The centre is funded by freemasons and, inevitably, there is an element of PR for freemasonry," he said. "We will make no secret of the fact that the centre is interested in empathetic scholarship, but that does not have to mean uncritical scholarship."
But he insisted that there would be safeguards. "The centre's mandate is to be completely independent of the United Grand Lodge. The centre is academic and will aspire to the highest standards of scholarship."
He said that among the lecturers working at the London centre, just one - Michael Baigtent, an author with no university connections - was an active freemason.
Although it is impossible to know the extent of freemasonry membership within higher education because membership remains secret, freemasonry clearly has deep links with the sector. As The THES revealed last year, there are at least 11 freemasons' lodges affiliated to British universities.