John Sizer, chief executive of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, has told governing bodies to be aware of their full responsibilities if they want to escape external constraints.
Professor Sizer, in a hard-hitting speech on governance and accountability at a SHEFC conference, said the Nolan committee believed that universities and the funding councils had struck a practical bargain between the benefits of autonomy and the need for accountability.
But this bargain was in danger of being undermined, "not just by the irresponsible actions of a few individuals in a minority of institutions", but by the inaction, real or perceived, of some governing bodies to recognise good corporate governance, and to undertake critical self-evaluation.
Professor Sizer, who is investigating allegations of mismanagement at Glasgow Caledonian University, said that, unlike company boards, governing bodies had not been designed for strategic management, but as representatives of a broad range of interests.
But the challenges facing institutions inevitably meant that governing bodies would take on an enhanced role and increased responsibilities. This included ensuring that public funds were not only used for their intended purpose, but achieved the best value for money.
"The governing body is the custodian of the autonomy, continuity and integrity of the institution," he said.
The Dearing report appeared "somewhat uneven" in tackling governance, building on notions of institutional autonomy and academic freedom while recommending that a detailed code of practice, with a regular review by the governing body should become a condition of grant.
It was up to institutions to prove that this was unnecessary because their governing bodies remained "a robust, first line of public accountability". Professor Sizer stressed that the key role went to the convener of the governing body. "The chair must ensure that the governing body does not become incestuous, demotivated or too close to those responsible for delivering its decisions," he said.