VICE-CHANCELLORS of top research universities have been warned they risk scuppering higher education's chances of more cash unless they unite over standards.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, has called on Russell and '94 group members to set aside differences on new quality assurance proposals to protect the sector's interests in the comprehensive spending review.
She has written to Edinburgh University vice-chancellor Sir Stewart Sutherland, who led an attack on proposals from the Quality Assurance Agency last month, appealing for a united front over revamping the QAA's plans.
She writes: "I am concerned that the sector appears in public to be divided on the proposals when there is in practice a high degree of congruence among institutions."
And she adds: "What concerns me is the scope that apparent public disagreement might give to those who want to hold down the resourcing of higher education generally."
Any gain made by successful institutions in a proposed system for rewarding high quality with more funding could be "wiped out" if such disagreements damage the Department for Education and Employment's case for more money in the CSR, the letter says.
The CVCP, which helped create the QAA and has pledged support for its proposals, has set up a standards and quality subgroup to take forward its reworked scheme. The latest version drops plans to have an army of registered external examiners reporting to the QAA - which met with widespread opposition - and introduces proposals for QAA-appointed "academic reviewers" to check standards.
Ms Warwick's letter says the new approach "will only carry credibility with government if we can demonstrate how the whole sector will achieve public accountability by its means, and that the whole sector is behind it".
In a clear attempt to bring the Russell and '94 groups into line, Ms Warwick suggests that the CVCP subgroup should "take forward the CVCP's interests as a whole I rather than attempt to interact as a multiplicity of groups with a very stretched QAA".
She says she agrees with comments made by Sir Stewart at CVCP council that the whole sector should wait and see about proposals for "benchmarking" groups to define minimum degree pass standards in subject areas. She suggests vice-chancellors should "let the subject benchmarking groups find the problems for themselves".
Sir Stewart was unavailable for comment.
Quality debate, page 6
Randall strikes back, page 11