Royal Society president Robert May this week questioned universities' pious insistence that research was a prerequisite of good teaching.
Delivering the Royal Society anniversary address on Monday, Lord May strayed close to the unpopular government line that universities do not need to have research degree-awarding powers to provide good teaching.
Lord May said the argument that research and teaching must be kept together was "supported by repeated assertion and little else". He accused universities of a "widely held piety" that a faculty must be research active to provide good teaching. He acknowledged, however, that good researchers made the best teachers.
Lord May suggested that the four-year teaching-only colleges in the US provided a sound model for the UK. "The graduates of the best of these are not handicapped," he said.
He raised concerns about the growing number of science and technology programmes in the UK that had powers to award research degrees. He pointed out that in 2000 the UK produced 166 PhDs in science and engineering, in the 25-34 age group, for every 100 in the US.
Lord May's comments raised the hackles of a number of heads of modern universities. Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, said people must stop looking to the US "which has a radically different system" for answers.
Dr Knight said: "This separation of research from undergraduate degrees is artificial. If an institution is responsible enough to award taught degrees it should be responsible enough to award research degrees."
Robert Cuthbert, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, said taking research degree-awarding powers away from universities would be problematic as people would no longer regard them as first-class institutions.
Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and head of the Coalition of Modern Universities, agreed that having a research degree programme was not an essential requirement of good undergraduate teaching.
But he stressed that it should be a requirement of being a university.
"I certainly wouldn't support the idea of concentration of research degrees if that meant we'd lose the right to develop our research programmes," he added.
Gillian Slater, vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University, said: "There may not be research evidence supporting this, but anyone who has taught knows this is the case. With research you can add that extra insight."
She added that the Royal Society had a rather narrow definition of research.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said that the link between teaching and research was central to the character and identity of a university: "To lose this is damaging not only to students but also to the sector as a whole."
Lord May also used his speech to call for the research assessment exercise to be scrapped. He warned that teaching was being overshadowed by research.
"It is arguably becoming almost a mark of status to have minimum contact with undergraduates. This is clearly bad for a university," he said.