Home Affairs Correspondent.
Plans to scrap university-based training for probation officers were yesterday described as "perverse, doctrinaire and counter-productive".
The heads of the country's universities warned that to reduce the knowledge and skills of the service could lead to a "considerable risk" to the public.
Their attack on Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, comes only a day after a senior High Court judge said the decision to opt for on-the-job training was the equivalent of pointing a pistol at the head of the probation service.
Mr Justice Garland warned that the proposals would reduce standards among a profession which handles vital work with offenders - including supervision of serious offenders like murderers and rapists when they leave prison.
The criticisms coincide with a lobby of Parliament by 1,400 probation officers who claim the Government is destroying the service's professionalism.
In one of the most radical shake-ups of the service, Mr Howard plans to scrap the social work diploma and instead tailor training to suit the needs of individual recruits. Ministers hope this will attract more former members of police and the armed forces as part of a move to harden the service's practices and image.
Mr Howard said: "I propose to sweep away the barriers to the recruitment of people who have relevant skills and experience to offer but who lack the social work diploma qualification which is at present required by the law."
But yesterday the committee of vice-chancellors and principals, said the two-year university- based training was "a relatively short time" in which to acquire the necessary legal, criminal and social policy knowledge base as well as the professional and practical skills required.
"Probation work demands strong critical intellectual skills in order to deal with high-risk offenders and with the increasing knowledge required with so much new legislation."
They also pointed out that the plans contradict the findings of a Home Office review which found that the service was "very effective in the training and recruitment methods it employs".
Dr Kenneth Edwards, chairman of the committee said: "These plans are perverse, doctrinaire and counter productive." The Government was ignoring its own research in pursuit of cost savings that "are probably illusory".