A single body representing all higher education institutions could be created out of a wide-ranging review ordered by vice-chancellors.
The review of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, announced this week, has been prompted by devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But it is also expected to lead to changes in the way the CVCP organises itself in England and could mean its opening up its membership to higher education college principals.
Some vice-chancellors and college heads see the review as an opportunity for the CVCP to transform itself into a British equivalent of the American Council on Education, which takes in the full range of institutions from community colleges right through to Ivy League universities.
It might also lead to the establishment of a new employers' body to replace the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, unifying pay and conditions negotiations and arrangements across the sector, they say.
The driving force behind the changes is the CVCP's recognition that constitutional changes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland "are likely to require a new CVCP structure in all four countries in the United Kingdom and these will need to be introduced speedily", a spokeswoman said.
A working party, chaired by Kenneth Edwards, vice-chancellor of Leicester University, has been set up to consider the options. Decisions are expected by next spring.
Dr Edwards said that while devolution was the main issue in the review, "the creation of a single body representing all of British higher education has to be considered as a possibility". The ACE was one good model for such a reorganisation, he suggested.
Diana Warwick, CVCP chief executive, said that the review could result in the creation of a federal structure that would represent the interests of all higher education institutions on a regional basis in England, as well as those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
"I would have thought regional structures make sense, since they are already being built. Universities will have to be engaging with the further education system, schools and Training and Enterprise Councils, at a regional level," she said.
The Standing Conference of Principals, representing higher education college principals excluded from CVCP membership, would be a "very much integral" part of the changes. "If we are looking at wider relationships we will have to look at the relationship with SCOP," she said.
Talks already under way between the CVCP and the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals are also likely to put the CVCP under pressure to overhaul its membership rules.
Ronald Crawford, COSHEP secretary, said a key issue was the fact that COSHEP represented all institutions in Scotland, and that this "causes the CVCP problems in terms of the way it defines its membership".
The CVCP was having to address this point because "COSHEP is not in the business of being taken over by the CVCP". He added: "It would be particularly ironic if precisely at the point in Scotland where we had devolution, the representative body for our institutions were seen to be controlled from London."
Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England and a member of the CVCP's longer term strategy group, said the review should lead to a UK body representing all higher education institutions.
"I do not see how the universities can or should maintain their exclusivity in the membership of the CVCP," he said.
Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Guildhall University, said the review should be used to create a body that reflected the growing regionalism in Britain.
"Divisions between different parts of higher education are not likely to be helpful in achieving that. We must break down artificial divides," he said.
Norman Taylor, SCOP chairman and principal of Surrey Institute of Art and Design, said: "Inevitably the restructuring will need to take account of SCOP, and could concentrate the debate on an even closer relationship."
Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute, described the review as "an historic opportunity to create a single body for all British higher education that fully reflects diversity in the sector".
Janet Trotter, principal of Cheltenham and Gloucester college of higher education, which gives her observer status on the CVCP, said: "Higher education should speak with one voice. The sector should be unified."
The CVCP said that in the light of the review, the two nominees for CVCP chairmanship, Strathclyde University vice-chancellor Sir John Arbuthnott and Southampton University vice-chancellor Howard Newby, had decided not to put their names forward.
A special meeting of the CVCP council has been called to precede its main committee on December 4 to discuss a new timetable for the CVCP elections.