DIVISIONS have opened up between Scottish university principals over the need for new legislation to improve governance in the sector.

Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the principal of Robert Gordon University, in Aberdeen, has backed proposals for change arguing they are essential.

His intervention comes just days after Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, urged ministers to drop the plans, contained in the Higher Education Governance Bill.

The Scottish Government Bill has suggested universities' powerful ruling Courts have elected chairs in future and also contain members of trade unions for the first time.

But Professor Pete Downes, convener of Universities Scotland and principal of Dundee University, said a recent public consultation on the proposals had proved they were unpopular.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, the Institute of Directors and submissions from student associations at Glasgow, St Andrews, Dundee and Queen Margaret universities have all spoken out against aspects of the proposals.

Mr Downes added: "Independent voices have clearly identified how the legislative proposals would reduce the diversity of chairmen and women of university courts, create a muddle of conflicting accountabilities and place universities' trade union partners in an impossible conflict of interest. Ultimately the planned legislation would reduce universities' effectiveness."

However, Mr von Prondzynski, who chaired a Government-commissioned review into university governance four years ago, said the legislation would not, in itself, endanger autonomy.

Writing in The Herald, he said: "Private sector companies, for example, are also regulated by company law without anyone suggesting as a result that, say, BP is not an autonomous organisation.

"The proposals set out by the Government are important elements in getting this balance between autonomy and public confidence right. Scotland's universities are a great success story. They have nothing to fear from this proposed legislation and a lot to gain."

Academics and students also hit out at calls to scrap the planned new legislation.

UCU Scotland, which represents lecturers, called on the Scottish Government to press ahead with the proposals or risk the future success of the sector.

Student body NUS Scotland said universities needed to stop defending "the old way of doing things" and recognise the need for reform.

The proposed Bill follows criticism by lecturers at the universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow that consultations on proposed cuts to courses and jobs were flawed. There have also been long-running concerns over the spiralling salaries of principals and the increasing autonomy of their management teams.