THE head of the oldest university north of the border has warned the Scottish Government not to interfere in the running of higher education institutions.

Professor Louise Richardson, principal of St Andrews University, made the comments in an interview with The Herald after being unveiled as the first female vice-chancellor of Oxford University.

Mrs Richardson, who will take over the role next year subject to final approval of Oxford's ruling parliament, said the biggest surprise of her time at St Andrews was the amount of regulatory bureaucracy.

In particular, she questioned the purpose of the forthcoming Scottish Higher Education Governance Bill, which includes measures such as introducing trade union members onto university Courts and making their chairs an elected post.

She said: "I think there is an increasing level of regulation and I do think, on the whole, that is detrimental to universities.

"The notion that autonomous universities are the best is not just a personal opinion I hold. The OECD have conducted studies across Europe and found a direct correlation between institutional autonomy and the quality of the institution.

"I worry about the governance proposals for universities that are going to be in the Bill because I think those proposals will be detrimental to Scottish universities.

"In a sphere like Scotland where you have a large number of universities, one of the strengths of the system should be the diversity of the institutions and it is important that we allow those differences to flourish rather than trying to treat all universities as if they are the same."

Under Mrs Richardson's tenure, St Andrews has consistently performed well in UK and international league tables and has a strong record on student retention.

However, it has also been criticised for dragging its heels on moves to encourage more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Figures show some 40 per cent of its students come from private school, despite the fact the independent sector only educates just under five per cent of the pupil population.

Mrs Richardson said the university had made "extraordinary strides" in recent years on widening access, with the number of pupils on outreach programmes increasing from 235 to 1,772 since 2008, the year before she took over.

And rather than focus on the proportion of private school pupils at St Andrews - a measure she described as "crude" - she suggested the real problem of access was because too few pupils from the poorest communities in Scotland leave school with the necessary qualifications to go to university.

She said: "So the real problem of access to the elite educational institutions is one that happens much earlier. We cannot expect universities to solve those problems and the investment has to be made much earlier to ensure that kids in poor areas get the education and have the ambition to attend the best universities.

"In Edinburgh, as we know, 25 per cent of students attend private schools. That to me suggests we need to be looking at the state schools and improving them so people don't feel they have to make sacrifices to send their children to private schools."

Although she still has some months before departing for Oxford, Mrs Richardson said she would have very fond memories of her time at St Andrews.

"It is really a magical place. I hadn't anticipated before I came here that it was such a tight-knit community - partly because of the location and partly because of the scale.

"This is a place where the philosophers know the physicists and where it's small enough that I can hold open office hours so students can come in and talk to me and I can do some teaching so I really feel I can have my finger on the pulse of the place."

She is also immensely proud of the university's place in Scotland and the wider world.

"We have a large cohort of international students every year who come to St Andrews, have an extraordinary time and then go back to their home countries utterly committed to St Andrews and more broadly to Scotland and over the years that pays back in dividends," she said.

And on achieving the post at Oxford, she added: "I feel enormously privileged to be given the opportunity to lead this remarkable institution during an exciting time for higher education.

"I am very much looking forward to working with talented, experienced and dedicated colleagues to advance Oxford's pre-eminent global position in research, scholarship, and teaching."

Chancellor of Oxford University, Lord Patten of Barnes, who chaired the nominating committee, said: "The panel was deeply impressed by Professor Richardson's strong commitment to the educational and scholarly values which Oxford holds dear.

"Her distinguished record both as an educational leader and as an outstanding scholar provides an excellent basis for her to lead Oxford in the coming years."

Before joining St Andrews in 2009, Professor Richardson lived and worked in the United States where she was Executive Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

She is an internationally renowned scholar of terrorism and security studies, on which she has advised policy makers and others internationally.