Wendy Alexander, Scotland's minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, this week launched a review of higher education and pledged it would be put at the top of the Scottish Parliament's agenda.
Ms Alexander said that parliamentary debate had so far been dominated by student support. She said that this was now "essentially fixed" and that it was time for a national debate on the role and the future of higher education.
The key areas she has set out for discussion are the role of institutions in meeting Scotland's skills needs, research priorities and modernising management.
She said that Scotland could learn much from other countries, notably American universities' skill in giving strategic direction from the top. Institutions needed to have a culture of enterprise and innovation rather than one of compliance.
She said that, as a small country, Scotland faced tough decisions about which areas of world-class excellence to support. There needed to be a better focus on national priorities and better ways of stimulating interdisciplinary research.
She also warned that there were few funding incentives that would encourage institutions to collaborate, and that this depended on the goodwill of individuals.
She has flagged up a potential change in status for the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, giving it an overt planning role.
She said that it was constrained by legislation forbidding a planning remit. But, given the strategic decisions emerging from the allocation of its £600 million budget, it was planning by default.
"(Shefc) is not in a position to think about the outputs we want for the system. It has no mandate even to discuss these issues. That is clearly lunatic," she said.
The minister made it clear that Shefc was in no danger from Scotland's "bonfire of the quangos", and said there would always be a need for an informed, arm's-length buffer between institutions and the parliament.
Ms Alexander said that she wanted responses to the first stage of the review by mid-December. The final report is due to be completed by June next year.
Sir Alan Langlands, principal of Dundee University, told The THES : "Universities will welcome this review.
"Ministers have shown a keen awareness of the sector's achievements in raising the quality of teaching and learning, widening access and making sure that research yields tangible benefits for society as a whole."
Sir Alan added: "This review should identify ways we can strengthen the sector's involvement in the knowledge economy and build on Scotland's aim of becoming a world leader in e-learning."