UNIVERSITIES are fighting plans to change the law to give the Government absolute control over pay, conditions and staff numbers.
University leaders have met Education Minister Ruairi Quinn to express reservations about proposed new legislation.
It follows a Cabinet decision to amend the Universities Act and give ministerial powers to require them to comply with government guidelines on pay, allowances, pensions and staffing numbers.
While other areas of the public service are subject to such controls, when it comes to universities, ministers have had to rely on persuasion.
But the college heads warned the minister that the move would tie their hands too much and be a further deterrent to attracting top academic talent and investment into Ireland.
They say they are also getting feedback from philanthropists that it could discourage them from making donations.
Representatives of the Irish Universities Association (IUA) laid out their concerns to Mr Quinn at a meeting last week.
Senior academics are among the best paid in the public service and there is annoyance in government circles that they have resisted calls to reduce salaries voluntarily to the new pay cap of €200,000 or below.
Currently about 100 academics are on salaries of €200,000 or more.
There are about another 80 to 90 senior academics in the €150,000 to €200,000 pay bracket, about half of whom are academic medical consultants.
There were also revelations that between 2005 and 2009, universities paid out some €7.5m in unauthorised allowances to 233 staff already in receipt of high levels of pay.
And there were instances where unapproved pension arrangements were put in place for staff at the highest levels as recently as 2011.
As the Government struggles to cut its payroll, the rate for new academic medical consultants was recently reduced from about €200,000 to €140,000.
Professor Bill Powderly, who is leaving his €241,000-a-year post as Dean of Medicine at UCD to return to America, said the climate of cuts and attitudes to research are partly responsible for his departure.
He told the Irish Independent that it would be a mistake to say that Ireland had become less attractive just because of salary, but it was sending a message that "we aren't serious about academic medicine anymore because we are not going to make salaries competitive".
In the face of all the curbs, the universities have been preparing a case for greater autonomy to reward talent and effort, while staying within a fixed pay budget.
IUA chief executive Ned Costello said that fresh thinking was needed on how to remunerate and retain top talent.
A spokesperson for Mr Quinn said that the proposed legislation had the backing of the Cabinet, but that the minister had "listened" to what the IUA had to say.
Mr Quinn made it clear that the legislation would proceed, but promised to "reflect" on what the IUA had said.