The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council is acting like a "usurper and dirigiste", a leading educationist has claimed.
David Robertson, convener of Dundee University's court and former director of education for Tayside regional council, speaking in a personal capacity at the Association of University Teachers' Scottish council in Dundee, made the claim.
He warned against the AUTS's newly-adopted policy to seek a planning and funding body for higher education under a Scottish parliament.
A planning role threatened institutional autonomy, he said, and he attacked statements in SHEFC's corporate plan as running counter to 1992 legislation for the Scottish tertiary sector. SHEFC claimed that the secretary of state for Scotland was empowered to determine the overall policy of Scottish higher education, and that although SHEFC had no statutory planning function, it seemed inevitable, and indeed desirable, that it would play a role in steering the sector at a strategic level, Mr Robertson said.
"I find the views taken by the funding council of their own powers and of the secretary of state's powers as quite worrying," he said. "Attributing to themselves and others powers they don't have has been the strategic device used by usurpers and dirigistes throughout the ages."
Bruce Nelson of Edinburgh University said he was concerned by the prospect of a planning role for SHEFC's successor. Planning could be benign, for example the setting up of a University of the Highlands, but nobody would welcome moves such as the former University Grants Committee's subject reviews, which would lead to job losses and the forced transfer of staff.
But Peter Breeze of Glasgow University said the problem of not having a planning body was that Government then did the planning. "Our planning is efficiency savings. We're simply subject to the whim of the public expenditure round."
What was needed was a body representing people in universities which did not merely give occasional advice to Government, but said how the sector should be developing.
There was a general welcome for a prospective Scottish parliament, which Ken Fraser of St Andrews University said "would regard education not just as an optional extra, but a vital ingredient in the progress of the nation".
Canon Kenyon Wright of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, a broad-based organisation working towards the establishment of a Scottish parliament, said Scottish education had always been learning for life, not just for a job.
"Today, as never before, you share the task of preparing our people to think clearly, to rise above the silly slogans of petty politicians, and to gain a vision of the breathtaking opportunity that lies ahead," he told the council.