SCOTTISH universities are increasingly controlled by small cliques of senior managers with little input from staff and students, a left-wing think tank has warned.

A paper on the governance of universities by the Jimmy Reid Foundation says institutions are controlled by a "professional class" who expect decisions to be rubber-stamped. The paper goes on to call for an overhaul of the sector to ensure ruling bodies are elected democratically.

The foundation's report, The Democratic University, comes in the wake of a new code of governance introduced this summer.

The code was drawn up after a review of the sector announced by Michael Russell, the Education Secretary, in 2011 following concerns over the way some institutions had been taking decisions.

However, staff unions and student leaders criticised the code, arguing it did not go far enough.

The report by the foundation states: "At its worst ... the governing body of a university is made up of the principal, members of academic staff appointed by the principal, lay members proposed by the principal and the senior management team and an elected student representative. This governance model appears to ­allocate to the university principal a status similar to that of an owner of an enterprise."

The report says universities are national civic institutions with a primary responsibility to their own community of academics and learners.

It concludes: "Since universities must be seen to be owned by their wider community, a governance model which is based on internal managerial control does not appear appropriate. University courts should become bodies wholly elected by the wider university community of staff and students and the role of the university principal and the senior management team should be to advise that body and to enact its will."

Gordon Maloney, president of NUS Scotland, welcomed the report. He said: "The report is right to highlight the lack of genuine involvement of staff and students in the running of their institutions and that's something we should all want to see changed. As bodies in receipt of over £1 billion of public funding every year we have long argued that we need to see real change in the democracy, transparency and accountability of our universities."

However, a spokeswoman for Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, said elements of the report were "disappointing".

"Scotland's universities are highly effective organisations and perform well on all measures including student satisfaction," she said. "Even starting from this strong base, higher education institutions are committed to continuous improvement in all areas, including their governance, and a new code introduces a raft of measures that will increase transparency and accountability.

"It is a shame the authors of this paper make no acknowledgment of the new code and it is also disappointing they chose not to contribute constructively to the lengthy and extensive period of consultation that was built in to the development of the new code."

The review of higher education governance announced by the Scottish Government followed criticism by lecturers at the universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow that consultations on proposed cuts to courses and jobs were flawed.

wThere have also been long-running concerns over the spiralling salaries of principals and the increasing autonomy of their management teams.

The Jimmy Reid Foundation is a left-wing think tank and advocacy group operating in Scotland which was established in memory of the prominent trade unionist.

The report was written by Craig Murray, former rector of Dundee University, Robin McAlpine, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and former deputy director of Universities Scotland, Allyson Pollock, a senior academic at London University, and Adam Ramsay, former student president of Edinburgh University.