Scotland's higher education institutions are increasing their power to shape national policy under radical plans putting them alongside the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council in drawing up key strategies.
Roger McClure, Shefc's chief executive, said Scotland's "embraceable" size offered the chance of working together in particular areas to give it a competitive edge. Shefc could issue reports, but strategies were likely to have much more impact if institutions were involved in their development.
He said: "You couldn't do this in England but Scotland is just about at the optimum size. We've been able to agree an arrangement whereby the council and sector as a whole can come together... (to) work out a national higher education strategy in certain specific areas. It seems to me particularly important given the expertise and experience that reside in these institutions that they should be feeding into the policy formulation process."
Four priorities have been set out for "strategic dialogue": leadership and management; e-learning; teaching excellence; and knowledge transfer. Institutions are being asked whether widening participation should be added.
Mr McClure stressed that strategic dialogue did not impinge on institutional autonomy nor extend Shefc's powers. Although institutions cannot be compelled to conform with any national strategy, an inclusive forum makes conformity more likely.
"Just as the funding council cannot force an institution to adopt a particular approach, this forum wouldn't be able to force it to adopt a particular approach. But if it went its own way, it would have to resist a certain amount of peer-group pressure and justify itself in front of the group," Mr McClure said.
A spokesperson for Universities Scotland said: "The higher education sector is very keen to work with its partners. It's better for those in the sector who have to deliver but it's also better for those policy-makers who have to set the goals and targets."