Universities are suffering from a crisis of identity because they refuse to acknowledge diversity within the system, including divergences between their degrees, according to Sir Stewart Sutherland, principal of Edinburgh University.
Delivering the Sir Robert Menzies oration at Melbourne University in Australia, he said the universities' weakness stemmed from the lack of a clear sense of common purpose, leaving them open to legislative attacks on their autonomy. Institutions could only be clear about the nature of academic autonomy when they were clear about what the word university meant, he said.
The expansion of the system meant that the question of what all universities had in common had to be reconsidered.
Reluctance to acknowledge that a first-class honours degree in maths or molecular biology at the University of Lower Gidding was not the equivalent of those same degrees at, say, Imperial College or Edinburgh, was stultifying true diversity, he said.
Institutions' preoccupation with research as a university's distinctive marker, as opposed to high-level teaching, complicated by the fact that some areas of research were so expensive that they could not be universally supported.
A further problem was the preoccupation with providing doctoral programmes at the expense of the question of fitness to provide them. Every British institution with the right to award degrees had subsumed within that the right to award PhDs, a power held by only 10 per cent of United States' institutions.
Sir Stewart said: "If we cannot acknowledge real differences, there is no prospect of discovering what we hold in common."