Active role for a vigorous player

June 5, 1998

As vice-chancellors meet today, their leader, Martin Harris, sets out his aims and hopes for universities.

Two convictions have underpinned the first of my two years as chair of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. They are closely interlinked. The first is that within our increasingly diverse sector there are varied and complementary strengths. Each of these must be presented effectively to government in the right context and on the right occasion. This is just what the CVCP does. It is perverse to argue that supporting the excellent research reinforcing our national competitiveness somehow puts at risk increased opportunity for the socially excluded. It is perverse to argue that "added value" for those not successful at school is in any way opposed to the need to stretch our ablest young people.

My second, equally strong, conviction is that universities need one national voice. It is the only way to maximise the chances of them getting the resources our students and our colleagues need over the years ahead. That is what the CVCP has been about over the past year.

Last September, when CVCP members met in the immediate aftermath of the Dearing report and the government's decisions on tuition fees, they set, with hardly a dissentient voice, a very clear agenda. Put at its simplest, universities through their vice-chancellors would support the Dearing agenda and government decisions provided that government delivered the funding necessary for us to do so.

That is the agenda that CVCP's officers have been working consistently, in public and in private, to achieve. The first task was to ensure that developing government policies for access and for lifelong learning took full account of what universities are already achieving and of what more they could achieve with appropriate support. We succeeded.

Those who have read the green paper The Learning Age and not just brief summaries of it will know just how fully it recognises the contribution of universities, alongside our colleagues in further education, to increasing access. It acknowledges the sheer scale of our work in continuing professional development, in postgraduate work of the highest quality, and in wealth generation through the science base. All of these are noted as key contributions to Britain's future economic and social development.

The CVCP had a major impact on the development of the green paper, as indeed on the reports that informed it. This was vital as government shaped the priorities underpinning the imminent spending decisions.

Then there is the question of research. CVCP representatives, alongside colleagues in the Office of Science and Technology and the funding councils, have lost no opportunity to stress the vital need for sharply increased funding both for project funding through research grants - the full-cost argument - and for the research base itself. Equipment must be renewed and laboratories refurbished to current standards, on the basis of local decisions as to where collaborative research may flourish or young scholars need an opportunity to emerge.

Underlying these objectives are questions of quality and standards. Without the expenditure on infrastructure that Dearing so clearly identifies as vital, the quality of what we provide to our students must fall. Without the investment in IT, and in training our colleagues to use IT to best effect, students' learning experiences will not be enhanced. In the context of the new fees regime, students will rightly not be tolerant of shortfalls in these areas. The CVCP has left the government in no doubt about the educational and political consequences of not meeting their obligations under the post-Dearing compact.

Of course universities believe they have an obligation to demonstrate that with proper funding, quality is maintained and standards upheld. Ten weeks of concentrated negotiations among universities and with the Quality Assurance Agency have brought us to the point where an acceptable methodology is emerging. This will rely largely on external checks on institutions' own quality control mechanisms, a pattern which the professions have been following successfully for many years.

On May 8 the CVCP council unanimously adopted a paper outlining a possible way forward based on universities' own systems combined with light touch external review. But agreement within the CVCP, or even between the CVCP and the QAA, will serve no purpose unless the funding councils and ultimately ministers find such arrangements acceptable. Detailed work must now be done. The CVCP's soundings give me confidence that the developing arrangements will meet with their approval.

Such is the agenda that the CVCP has been pursuing over the last year. An agenda that vice-chancellors (all those who speak to me rather than anonymously to the press) want the CVCP to continue to pursue vigorously. We now await the government's decision within the comprehensive spending review to see whether they will deliver their share of the post-Dearing compact.

Martin Harris is chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester.

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