Concerns that the Scottish Government may soon have the power to interfere in the management of independent universities have prompted officials to reconsider elements of a new law on post-16 education, MSPs have heard.
The university sector has expressed widespread anxiety about provisions in the Post-16 Education Bill that would allow ministers to impose conditions on universities to adhere to "good practice in governance".
The heads of four Scottish higher education institutions appeared before Holyrood's Education and Culture Committee to outline their concerns.
University of Edinburgh principal Sir Timothy O'Shea said: "We have a principle anxiety about the legislation.
"We are very supportive of the whole Bill in terms of intentions with regards to widening participation, greater efficiency of the sector and greater accountability.
"At the same time, we are very aware that the Scottish universities are seen as being particularly successful, and the outside commentators relate that success to the responsible autonomy that we discharge."
He added: "We are anxious that there may inadvertently be a potential reduction in responsible autonomy and that some future administration might be in a position to intervene in a way that would be unhelpful to the success of universities."
He continued: "Our experience since devolution has been that we have, with the four governments, had a very constructive engagement and we have flourished in comparison to other European and English education systems.
"Our anxiety is that if a future government were given the apparatus whereby it could intervene in our management or governance structures then it might choose to do so.
"And clearly if you look around Europe you find examples of countries where governments, or regional governments, do intervene in the governance of universities and it is clearly unhelpful."