Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, warned this will be “devastating” for universities’ reputations as she appeared before Holyrood’s education committee yesterday.
But university chiefs came under fire over the gulf in pay between the highest and lowest earners at institutions.
The overhaul of the way universities are run has prompted widespread concerns among academics who say it could undermine their independence by allowing Scottish ministers to appoint a majority on their university courts.
Supporters say that it will make universities more representative.
But Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist who discovered the first radio pulsars, told MSPs that the unintended consequences of the Higher Education Governance Bill are “really scary.”
She said: “Starting about the time of the referendum, but picking up momentum now with this legislation, when I’m abroad I find people saying to me, ‘What’s happening to the Scottish university? What’s the government there doing?’, with the implication that there is interference – not quite articulated – the implication that there is suppression of critical thought.
“That is not a word that you want to get abroad – that will be devastating for the SNP and the Scottish universities. But it’s growing and it’s out there already.”
Dame Jocelyn said that the Scottish changes are based on what’s happening in her native Ireland.
But she said that universities “lift Scotland” in a way that doesn’t happen in Ireland and said much of this was down to “curious governance arrangements.”