Devolution threatens worldwide standing

September 18, 1998

Vice-chancellors have voiced fears that devolution and regional policies could undermine the international standing of British higher education.

They are worried that devolved powers in Scotland and Wales will lead to a breakdown in nation-wide approaches to funding, quality assurance and conditions of service for staff.

They also fear government moves to provide English regional development agencies (RDAs) with significant money for education and training could push the sector towards regional planning.

The worries emerged this week as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals met at Manchester University.

CVCP leaders welcomed Tuesday's announcement by David Blunkett, secretary of state for education and employment, that RDAs would receive Pounds 38 million a year to work with further and higher education to develop regional skills strategies.

Richard Caborn, minister for the regions, told CVCP members that RDAs had been given enough money for them to become a "major force" in the regions.

But Martin Harris, CVCP chairman, warned that the RDAs should not be encouraged to play a strategic planning role. He said: "I do not think any of us would welcome giving the RDAs the role of imposing any kind of local planning structure."

Professor Harris said vice-chancellors had also raised concerns about the possible impact of devolution. He said it would be "very harmful" if funding and quality assurance systems became so diverse that the sector lost its national identity.

Vice-chancellors hoped that the RDAs in England would help forge closer working relationships between universities and industry.

Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Guildhall University, said that relations between universities and employers had been hampered by poor communication and a mismatch between the kinds of timescales academics and employers work to.

Vice-chancellors are also pressing for a national approach to quality assurance.

They have backed proposals for a new quality system from the Quality Assurance Agency, which would give institutions responsibility for checking their own standards, backed up by external "sampling" of their quality systems. But there are worries that the funding councils will not give the proposals their blessing quickly enough for the system to be adopted nationwide.

The Welsh and Scottish higher education funding councils, whose quality assessment cycles under the old system are drawing to a close, need to decide quickly whether to accept the QAA blueprint.

But their decision will be influenced by the verdict of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which was meeting today to consider the proposals.

A CVCP spokesman said: "Vice- chancellors are clear that this presents the best opportunity for quality to be assured and standards to be measured on a UK-wide basis. With that, we can promote ourselves on the global stage."

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