SCOTTISH universities are inherently conservative institutions which have "survived intact" since the Middle Ages, according to a leading sector figure.

Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the head of Robert Gordon University, in Aberdeen, said some institutions had not changed radically since they were formed seven centuries ago.

The only other institution in Scotland which has survived since then is the Catholic Church, he added.

Mr von Prondzynski made the comments as he defended controversial moves by the Scottish Government to reform the way the sector is run.

The Higher Education Governance Bill, which is currently going through Holyrood, includes proposals to appoint trade union members to universities' ruling Courts for the first time and make the powerful post of Court chair elected - potentially ending the historic role of rector.

Because the appointment and election of governing body chairs will be made through ministerial regulations universities believe that will threaten their autonomy.

Senior administrators also fear the new measures will lead universities to be reclassified as public bodies which would end their status as charities and damage their ability to raise money.

But Mr von Prondzynski, who led a review into university governance which paved the way for the current legislation, said opposition from the sector was caused by inherent conservatism.

He said: "Universities are among the most conservative bodies you will ever find. They're full of people who are genuinely intellectual and clever and sometimes very liberal, but in their own environment they're conservative.

"Some will say that's been a strength because universities haven't radically changed – as some people point out, universities and the Catholic Church are the only institutions that have survived intact since the Middle Ages."

Mr von Prondzynski said university governing bodies were unique in society because they were "accountable to no one".

He added: "They're not accountable to the wider population of staff and students, they're not accountable overall to the government, they're not accountable to anyone.

"In a modern society, you can't have bodies taking fundamentally important decisions that affect both the institutions and the wider public without being accountable for it."

Universities Scotland, which represents principals, reiterated its view that the legislation was unnecessary and could end up handing the Scottish Government near unlimited powers to amend university governance arrangements in the future.

A spokeswoman said: "Students and staff are already a key part of decision-making on universities' governing bodies.

"They serve as governors, they have key roles in the open and transparent appointment of the chair of the board and the principal of the university. New legislation is not needed for that."

The spokeswoman added that universities already worked to very strong lines of accountability, not only to Government, but to other funders, to the charities regulator and professional regulatory bodies.

"We do not believe the Bill is necessary nor do we feel it is appropriate for the Government to take highly prescriptive decisions about how autonomous universities are managed," she added.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman denied that ministers wanted to control universities and said officials were confident the new arrangements would not run foul of charities legislation or new European rules on public bodies.

She said: "There is no intention for the Scottish Government to have any involvement in the appointment process for the position of chair at any institution, so any suggestion of us exerting greater direct control over the sector is just wrong,” she said.

“The Bill simply aims to improve governance by enabling our higher education institutions to embrace greater transparency and inclusivity in their governance arrangements.

"We will continue to take careful note of every constructive comment and suggestion make by stakeholders as the Bill progresses through parliament."

The origins of the Bill date back to 2011 when a number of universities, including Glasgow and Strathclyde, brought forward course cuts.

There was a strong feeling from the wider communities these institutions serve that consultations with staff and students were rudimentary and decisions were motivated by economic considerations rather than academic ones.

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