MINISTERS have been accused of threatening the fundamental principle of academic freedom at Scottish universities.

Political opponents made the claim after the sector was issued with new Scottish Government guidance placing great emphasis on powering business, which it expects universities to prioritise in return for more than £1 billion of public funding.

The letter from Higher Education Minister Shirley-Anne Somerville to the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) calls on the body to ensure activities in research, innovation and teaching “fully align with and support” the Government’s policy ambitions.

While universities already work closely with the business community and seek to produce graduates who have the appropriate skills, institutions are concerned the language of the new guidance goes further than before in directing universities.

The letter states: “The SFC must work with the sectors to ensure that students have access to courses that reflect the needs of industry in Scotland, and that the existing links between industry and the sectors are further developed.

“You should work in partnership across the enterprise and skills system, involving institutions, to respond as appropriate to labour market need.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said this year’s letter of guidance was no different to previous years but the prospect of a hard Brexit threatening “Scotland’s prosperity and indeed, the well-being of our universities” gave this one greater significance.

But Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservatives, said the letter marked the latest attempt by the Government to secure greater control over the university sector.

She said: “During budget discussions the Education Secretary John Swinney was encouraging universities to make greater use of their private finance and that is completely at odds with trying to increase government control over strategic direction. “It is little wonder universities are concerned,” she added.

Iain Gray, Labour’s education spokesman, said Scottish universities, once the envy of the world, were now being restricted to an arm of the Scottish Government.

He said: “A ministerial letter saying the SFC must focus on maximising the contribution towards achieving the Scottish Government’s priorities “[It] is a transparent attempt to compromise academic freedom for her own political ends.”

Tavish Scott, for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, added: “Scotland either has academic independence or not. If universities, through the SFC, must follow Government policy that freedom is effectively over.”

A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said institutions shared many Government priorities – including partnerships with business, employable graduates and driving up productivity in the economy.

But she added: “The role universities play in our economy, society and culture is much wider than the priorities outlined in the letter of guidance and we must keep that broad role at the heart of our higher education sector.

“Universities are not just delivery agents for Government policy. We are a force of initiative in our own right about how to address the challenges facing the economy and society, for Scotland and the world.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are clear Scotland’s universities are autonomous, but they also have a key contribution to make to our ambitions for Scotland’s economy, as highlighted recently by Audit Scotland.”

“In return for direct annual investment of over £6 billion in the higher education sector over the past six years, ministers expect the combined efforts of the Scottish Government, Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and our excellent institutions to yield maximum benefit for Scotland’s overall well-being - educationally, socially and economically.”