The failure of Inverness to win its own university in the 1960s may be seen historically as "very good news" for the north of Scotland, according to Brian Duffield, chief executive of the University of the Highlands and Islands project.
Professor Duffield was speaking at an Edinburgh University seminar on the response of universities to regional needs, part of an international investigation being carried out through the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's programme on institutional management in higher education.
Professor Duffield argued that had the Inverness bid succeeded, it would have resulted in a single institution, benefiting a single town.
But the new proposals envisaged a university not simply in its region, but of its region, with a multiple campus evolving organically from existing provision, and benefiting 12 or more communities, offering a community curriculum to meet their needs.
John Goddard, professor of regional development studies at Newcastle University, who is leading the OECD project, will collate case studies from member universities, with a final report expected by next September.
In most OECD countries, higher education has been primarily funded by national governments to meet national labour market and research needs, he told the seminar.
But this traditional relationship is now being challenged by new local and regional clients for research and learning. Chambers of commerce act on behalf of small and medium-sized enterprises, with community development associations and local labour market agencies representing lifelong learners, while local authorities seek support for the arts and cultural industries, Professor Goddard said.
Regional initiatives have become more important to economic success, and local policies promote indigenous entrepreneurship and innovation, with higher education seen as the gateway for local interests to gain access to global knowledge.
Professor Goddard said regional success had been achieved through a range of different models, but the key to them all were links between the people producing, disseminating and using knowledge. Many universities had set up intermediary bodies, such as technology transfer units and regional development offices.
"The challenge now is to bring this activity into the mainstream and embed regional engagement into academic life more generally."
Employers and education and training systems had to share information to help meet future labour market needs. Very little was known about the flow of students into the local workforce and its impact on regional economic performance.
And there was a further question of higher education's indirect contribution to local economic success through its cultural and political impact. This could include staff serving as elected politicians, providing a source of talent for local administrations or making media contributions.
This was echoed by Sir John Shaw, chairman of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, who said social responsibility must go alongside responsibility to the client.
"The point which needs to be constantly put before academic institutions is not to be all things to all people, but concentrate on being best in a particular role."
Professor Duffield said: "The competition that characterises the higher education sector is a disgrace, for which the nation and people have paid dearly, and it's got to stop."
John Sizer, chief executive of SHEFC, said encouraging collaboration helped institutions to remove unhelpful or wasteful duplication.
The Garrick committee - the Scottish arm of Dearing - had concluded that the Scottish higher education system was a good size for sharing staff and facilities on a regional or national basis.
But Sir William Stewart, former chief scientific adviser to the Cabinet Office, warned that SHEFC and the universities alone could not be expected to solve the problems of the way forward.
He told the seminar that the pace of technological change was too quick for the processes of academic management.