Higher education will be damaged by government plans to differentiate between research universities, teaching institutions and those who focus on other activities, say Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals.
In its response last week to the strategic plan published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, UUK criticises the plans as being too simplistic and dictatorial.
Its paper states: "UUK is concerned that the government's priorities and related funding council proposals will produce a limited and differentiated sector that does not reflect the complexity of how universities have to operate in the public interest regionally, nationally and internationally.
"Universities must be free to decide their own missions in the best interests of their students, their staff, their communities and their local economies."
It lashes out at the idea that collaboration could compensate research-active staff employed in teaching-only institutions, branding it insufficient and inappropriate.
It also points out that the English funding council is only one of several funders of higher education institutions and that this is not reflected in the strategy and actions for the sector.
It criticises the funding council for increasing its running costs by more than 30 per cent between 1999 and 2003, saying this is "well above inflation and the increase in grant to the sector". It suggests the funding council's own budget should reflect that of the sector as a whole.
Patricia Ambrose, executive secretary of Scop, said: "We would strongly emphasise the complexity of the sector and the need for it to remain dynamic, open to change and innovation. Any attempt by government or funding bodies to limit and define the pattern and role of institutions could lead to future decline and ossification for the sector overall."
Scop's briefing paper calls for a halt to selectivity in funding for research in the arts and humanities. It states: "We believe there is a genuine and growing danger that further selectivity will ossify the sector and could make the UK less research-competitive, particularly in new and emerging areas such as the creative arts."