University presidents and other top academics will no longer be treated as the equivalent of government officials under a Communist Party plan to shake up public institutions. The move, which mainland education critics have long said was necessary to improve academic quality, could free university leaders to concentrate on their academic mission. Other critics fear the action could damage institutions' ability to secure government support. The overhaul would extend to all institutions that provide social services, from research centres and hospitals to publishing houses and performing arts organisations, according to the party's third plenum. Currently, top officials hold administrative status equivalent to that of government leaders. This confers powers and privileges such as first-class flights, VIP hospital rooms, and access to important meetings and classified documents. The practice has long been blamed for encouraging officials to focus on amassing power instead of improving their institutions. It allows top officials to take part in funding decisions, inviting the possibility of corruption and limiting the academic independence of professors and researchers. The change could be implemented very soon, said a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Science's Institute of Policy and Management. "Schools and research institutes should be governed by scholars, not officials," said the researcher, who declined to be named. "I am glad the state leaders have finally come to endorse academic independence." But Chen Guoqiang , a professor at Tsinghua University's school of life sciences, said the reform would cause new problems. "The most important role of our president is to seek and secure sources [of funding] for the university," Chen said. "If they do not have a place in the government's power circle, the university would become an NGO and their bargaining power with other government agencies … would be severely reduced."