Professor Todd Walker, vice-chancellor of the University of Highlands and Islands (UHI), made the comments after arriving in Inverness from Australia to take up his position.
Prof Walker, who was appointed in February, but whose move to Scotland was delayed due to the pandemic, told the Inverness Courier that a review of the curriculum was now underway.
He said: “I’d go on the record as saying the days of having a vanity course, unit or subject are over. We’re not here to study something for which there is no direct employment, growing market or sector.”
Prof Walker told the newspaper that renewables was a growth area of interest to the university, along with “seven or eight” others.
The vice-chancellor added: “The university has started a curriculum review, which will examine, among other things, workforce alignment and demand. The review is in its early stages and will take two to three years to complete.
“It is about training talent to retain talent in the region.”
Prof Walker’s remarks were criticised on Twitter by academics, creatives and other commentators, with the vice-chancellor issuing an apology on Tuesday afternoon.
He said: "I understand the concerns of some students and staff following the article in today’s Inverness Courier, especially the headline focusing on ‘no more vanity courses at UHI’.
“I am sorry for any confusion or distress this has caused. That was never my intention when I agreed to give the interview.
“There is no hidden agenda, or message in this article from me that some courses or subject areas are more important than others.”
Prof Walker said the review would be “transparent” and examine the needs and wants of students in the future.
Dr Allan Kennedy, lecturer in early modern Scottish history at Dundee University and consultant editor of History Scotland magazine, said on Twitter: “An incoming VC who uses language like 'vanity courses' and 'workforce alignment and demand' should immediately be dismissed.”
Roseanna Cunningham, Scotland’s former environment secretary and long-serving MSP, who stood down this year, also posted: “Vanity’ courses? This is pretty grim – would cease to deserve the term ‘university’ in my opinion.”
Pat Kane, writer, political activist and musician, said: “At a time when we’ve never needed the humanities more, so we can ask fundamental questions about the values and goals of our ‘markets’ and ‘sectors’ under climate crisis/automation, it’s enraging to hear such utilitarian crap.”
Mary Senior, Scotland official at the University and College Union (UCU), which represents lecturers and support staff, said in a statement that “all learning is vital”.
She said: “It’s clearly important to link into the economy and developing skills, but that’s not the entirety of what universities are for. We will miss out on critical new research and innovations if we only focus on what appears at the moment to be important to the economy.
"A university needs to serve its community and for UHI this means being connected with the communities of the Highlands and Islands, going beyond what is being suggested to also respond to social and cultural needs.”