Universities need the "managerial autonomy of private sector entrepreneurs" to be efficient and effective, according to the new president of Universities UK.
Rick Trainor told the organisation's annual conference last week that universities should not be treated as if they are part of the public sector and should be given "unfettered freedom to compete".
And he criticised the Government for failing to consult the sector over a raft of recent higher education policy announcements, suggesting that this undermined universities' autonomy.
"In my native US, even in state universities there is nothing like the degree of intervention in institutional management and in the working life of academics that we experience in this country," Professor Trainor said.
"Universities need relief from the double burden of official and professional regulation... This is not a plea for a quiet life for university managers or academic leaders, who are working hard to improve management and governance. Rather, it is a call for recognition that we need more of the managerial autonomy of private-sector entrepreneurs if we are to be efficient and effective."
He said effective autonomy was "inconsistent with Government decisions divulged to UUK shortly before a public announcement", referring to this month's decision that teaching funding will be withdrawn for students taking a second degree.
The announcement was "reminiscent" of the Further Education Bill, launched earlier this year, "which made scant reference to the opinions of the many universities active in further education".
"Universities are not part of the public sector and should not be treated as if they are... The very considerable expertise of universities needs to be fed into government policy decisions," he added.
Professor Trainor, principal of King's College, London, said financial health was key to universities attaining effective autonomy.
In future, he said, funding would come from an increasingly diverse range of sources, but the need for more public funding required "urgent" attention.
'KNOCK MYTHS ON THE HEAD' - UUK
The claim that today's graduates are not fit for the workplace is a myth, according to the new president of Universities UK.
While their grammar may need a little polishing, they outdo previous generations in many other areas, including IT skills and creativity, Rick Trainor told UUK's annual conference.
"Can we knock on the head the notion that our graduates are not fit for work?" he said. "Where is the evidence? Older generations have always said that the young generation isn't up to scratch."
Universities Secretary John Denham said the Government's skills agenda, coupled with a coming demographic shift that will see the population of 18 year-olds in England drop by more than 14 per cent, will give universities a new focus on older students "who need to study in new ways, balancing work and family, and to be financed in new ways".
Universities spend too little time celebrating each other's achievements. "Too often the tendency is to talk about what others are less good at, rather than to emphasise strengths," Mr Denham said.