Fears surfaced at a major event on part-time education that Scotland was heading toward a "mechanistic" view of learning, where courses must prove that they have clear economic value.
Mark Batho, chief executive of the Scottish Funding Council, told this year's Part-Time Forum that all study should lead to improved economic growth. At the same event, new Skills and Lifelong Learning Minister Angela Constance said that skills "must be related to jobs".
There were some dismayed responses to Mr Batho's comments, typified by John Morrison of Aberdeen University's history of art department: "This appears to be a rather mechanistic view of education, which sees it as skills training and not something that has intrinsic value itself. I find that distressing."
It could lead to the arts being given a lower priority, said Edinburgh College of Art's Robbie Bushe, yet they played a "vital role in the economy and cultural well-being of our country".
A Hebrides-based student voiced concern that Scottish education, despite a history of supporting education for its own sake, would risk becoming a "training machine".
Mr Batho strongly denied favouring education that provided a clear pathway to a specific job, recalling a colleague who had pointed out that 70 per cent of FTSE 100 chief executives were history graduates.
While he could not confirm that claim, the point was clear: "If you say you shouldn't be funding history because it doesn't have economic benefit, then you're 100 per cent wrong."
He disputed that, by demanding a connection between education and economic growth, areas of study such as the arts and humanities would suffer in a time of cutbacks.
"Economic growth is not mechanistic - it's about the development of a culture and a society that is at ease with itself and has cultural integrity," Mr Batho said.
But, given Scottish education's dwindling coffers, he insisted institutions would have to decide whether it was worth funding courses which were "of no benefit".
An open mind was necessary, however: he recalled discussion about the study of belly dancing and rabbit anorexia; ultimately, rabbit anorexia had been deemed a worthwhile course of study.
Willy Roe, who is leading a review of post-16 education and vocational training, said Scotland was one of the best countries for higher education, but one of the worst for post-16 destinations.
To get the best out of higher education, he said, there was considerable evidence to show that investment should be focused on the six months before birth, and the first two years of life.
The possibility of being an entrepreneur or an employer should be "woven into every part of higher education", he added, advocating "deep and extreme collaboration with people outside our sector".
Mr Roe insisted that the financial turmoil looming over Scotland should not induce panic in education spending. It was not as bad as many believed and, in any case, funding already came from a mixed economy of public, private and personal investment.
The Government should offer incentives to students willing to put money into higher education, he said, if they agreed to learn skills for industries with recruitment problems.
Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of the Open University, had a clear message about how to bring the digital world into learning, which might not sit well with specialist educational platforms such as Glow, the Scottish schools' intranet. He thinks educators must work within digital media used by young people already, such as Facebook. "The secret is to meet them where they live," he said.
The Part-Time Forum is a joint venture of the Open University, the University of the West of Scotland and Holyrood Events