Dr Peter Higgins, an outdoor education senior lecturer in the faculty of education at Edinburgh University, said: "There was a golden era 15 years ago when Scotland was ahead of the rest of the world in formal outdoor education in schools.
"It was miles ahead in terms of the qualifications of the people who worked in it, the number of people going through and in their depth of experience."
But Dr Higgins said pressures on local authorities had brought about a "huge decline". Outdoor centres had closed, equipment had been sold and staff laid off. Fewer pupils were enjoying the outdoor experience.
Lothian secondaries used to have an outdoor education worker on the staff. Now there were only seven left.
Dr Higgins believed that outdoor education was already being diluted by the cuts and the consequent downgrading of the profession. The former Moray House Institute has been training outdoor staff for more than 25 years at undergraduate and postgraduate level. More than 300 students have taken specialist courses.
Ally Morgan, a Fife outdoor link worker and former lecturer, said when centres were fully subsidised activities were more adventurous. Pressures to raise income had led to higher charges and changed activities.
Dr Higgins added: "Lack of money has driven down wages and that has driven qualifications down."
Yet he admitted basic standards had improved after legislation had been introduced following the Lyme Bay canoe tragedy. "You cannot really complain that technical standards are low but they are minimum standards. There is a world of difference between giving kids an abseil or gorge scramble and trying to set that in an educational context. It's the difference between an activity holiday and outdoor education," he said.
Headteachers sometimes found it difficult to distinguish between the two.Mr Morgan, however, believed outdoor education was a vehicle for delivering expressive arts, environmental studies and personal and social development in the 5-14 curriculum. It had a strong educational base.
Dr Higgins explained it was the difference between a group doing power boating on a loch and "going yee-haa" and taking a group canoeing where they have to co-operate in open canoes, with an overnight stay on the lochside. "They would assess the quality of the experience and set it in the school context," he suggested.
The conference, involving 14 nations at the Cramond campus in Edinburgh, was organised by the European Institute for Outdoor Adventure Education Experiential Learning and the National Association for Outdoor Education.