A single voice is not enough for a sector singing different tunes

William Evans argues that UUK cannot represent a fragmented academy, as competing interests require special-interest groups

December 9, 2010

Credit: Rose Barton

Universities UK's response (or lack of it) to the ongoing argument over tuition fees has come in for criticism in some parts of the higher education sector - mostly the new universities - and been defended by others, particularly the elite research institutions.

But why are we surprised? One of UUK's main problems is how to represent a membership that is so diverse. This problem is shared by all representative organisations, whether political parties, trade unions or gardening clubs. Universities might ponder what has happened in two other sectors.

The Law Society is the professional body representing the interests of solicitors in England and, when it remembers, Wales. The profession is very diverse. A small number of huge firms, based mostly in London but operating internationally, serve big clients and turn over vast fees. There are also many firms of two to 50 partners, and a large number of sole practitioners, some of whom occupy sophisticated market niches, others a corner of the kitchen table. Then there are the in-house solicitors, working in commerce, local government, charities and so on.

The only things this motley array has in common are an aversion to competition (in the public interest, of course) and a yearning to increase profitability (essential to maintaining high standards). A big City firm is light years away from a single-handed part-timer; firms servicing commercial clients have a different ethos from those that subsist on legal aid.

To represent that lot, with one voice, is near impossible. At various times this has led to the City firms threatening to withdraw; champions of smaller practices trying to seize control of the agenda; and yet other groups regarding the Law Society as an irrelevance.

It has reacted by setting up groups to represent particular interests, or by constitutional reforms guaranteeing some groups a seat or a vote, to howls of protest. The result is an organisation splintered by sectional rivalry, hamstrung by pressure-group manoeuvring, ineffective in dealing with the government and despised by many of its members.

Local authorities have a different history. Until 1997, boroughs, counties, district councils and metropolitan authorities had their own representative bodies. They squabbled, but they effectively represented their members because of the commonalities.

Following criticisms of duplication, in 1997 the various associations merged to form the Local Government Association (LGA), which now represents more than 400 local, fire, police, national park and transport authorities.

Although the LGA claims to speak with one voice on behalf of its members, in fact it expresses the views of the political party in the majority. Civil servants prefer this as it saves work in consultations, and they do not have to reconcile the needs of differing authorities. The fudge comes to them ready-packed.

Internally, of course, the LGA is riven by party politics and member councils' differing concerns, politics, demographics and resources. To suggest that one body can effectively represent them all is bizarre.

When there were fewer universities and no other types of higher education institution, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals could fairly claim to represent all its members. Once, however, the colleges of advanced science and technology became technological universities, the six new universities were formed in the 1960s with the intention that they should differ from the Oxbridge and redbrick models, and polytechnics were allowed to adopt university titles, the sector shared less commonality of interest.

Tensions between research and teaching, between exclusive selection to foster excellence and inclusive access to widen participation, and between international, national and regional outlooks spawned more diversity. The creation of a market of sorts led to competitive behaviour and a corresponding diversity of missions, strategies and marketing images.

UUK's claim to speak for all universities is called into question by the proliferation of special-interest gangs - the Russell Group, Million+ and so on - which presumably would not exist if their members thought UUK offered adequate representation.

One way forward might be to wind up UUK and redistribute its functions to narrower-interest representative groups. Non-contentious common services required by all higher education institutions, such as information-gathering and data dissemination, could be delivered by a cooperative pool, funded either by tariff-based service contracts or contributions according to turnover or student numbers. Matters of common concern could be addressed jointly.

Each group would then be free to lobby on its own terms, voicing the concerns of its members alone. Then, if it failed to get its points across about tuition fees, funding structures or anything else, it would have only itself to blame.

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