Cambridge University has begun the hunt for a new leader who will determine whether the ancient university can carry on competing with the global elite.
This week the university set up an advisory committee, which will appoint a vice-chancellor for September next year, when Sir Alec Broers finishes his seven-year term.
Academics believe the new leader could win the university independence from central government and its rigid funding regime, paving the way for top-up fees and maybe privatisation.
The THES reported last November that prime minister Tony Blair was behind a plan to create an elite tier of research universities, freeing five or six of them from the funding formulae and central control. Calls for the breakaway intensified last week when Oxford University received a cut in real terms in its government grant for research.
Cambridge's freedom depends on its ability to demonstrate to ministers that it can restructure its governance and management to respond to the global environment. Consultation on major reform is under way but the new leader will inherit unprecedented executive powers.
One possible candidate is Malcolm Grant, a pro vice-chancellor. He said at a recent Senate House discussion: "That person... should be a world-class figure capable of seizing the university, of taking a grip on its governance."
But he said: "Despite some tentative approaches from quite misguided colleagues I am clear in my own mind that I do not have the qualities required for the vice-chancellorship of this university."
Another candidate could be Lord Browne, the chief executive and chairman of BP, which is a major donor to Cambridge. This possibility has fuelled concerns about ministers' close interest in Cambridge's modernisation. Lord Browne, a Cambridge graduate, is understood to have been acting as an informal adviser to Downing Street on university governance.
Stephen Cowley, a member of the university's board of scrutiny, said at a recent Senate House debate that Lord Browne was rumoured to be a favourite for the job and his extensive links to government were a cause for concern.
A spokesman for BP said that Lord Browne had made it clear that he intends to stay until he is 60, in six years' time.
One senior source at Cambridge said that "someone like John Browne" would make a good lay chairman of the university's governing council, rather than vice-chancellor, who has traditionally been an academic insider. But this time the university will recruit headhunters and advertise widely.
Other potential internal candidates include David Ingram, master of St Catharine's College; Peter Goddard, master of St John's College; Malcolm Schofield, professor of ancient philosophy; Kate Pretty, principal of Homerton College, Cambridge; and Anne Lonsdale, president of New Hall.
The university council's advisory committee will draw up a shortlist for the council, which will take the final decision later this year. The university's community of scholars will be asked for approval before September 2003.