Joined-up thinking

July 11, 2003

We urgently need a body to reconcile competing interests in higher education, says Roger Brown

The government's confirmation of its intention to allow institutions without research degree-awarding powers to obtain a university title, as well as to broaden the categories of institution that can attain taught degree-awarding powers, will pose serious, possibly terminal, challenges for the bodies that represent the institutions: Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals.

In one sense, the government higher education white paper and the university title proposals are a logical corollary of the decision taken in 1992 to broaden the definition of a university. Indeed, I well remember the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics explaining to departmental officials at the time that this was what the decision to abolish the binary line really meant.

In another sense, however, the white paper breaks new ground by creating, deliberately, a much sharper differentiation between institutions, something that the new chairman of the Russell Group, Michael Sterling, has been quick to exploit.

It is a moot point whether this differentiation will lead to greater choice for students and a better use of resources - as institutions play to their strengths - as the government and the funding council clearly hope.

It could equally be a prelude to wholesale institutional rationalisation, especially if the resources for student growth are as constrained as has been anticipated. Either way, the long-standing and severe differences in institutional resourcing and reputation are likely to remain and, indeed, become further entrenched.

Hitherto, UUK has just about been able to accommodate these differences, although the strains are becoming increasingly evident. These will become even greater if, assuming UUK swallows its pride, it agrees to admit to membership what are already being called the "teaching-led" universities: the higher education colleges with taught degree-warding powers that are queuing up to be allowed entry to the university club.

Scop would then lose most of its larger members, leaving it mainly with smaller and specialist institutions. The long-term future of these is uncertain and they could, in any case, find themselves overtaken by some of the larger mixed-economy further education colleges, as these strive to obtain, and gain, degree-awarding powers, if not university status. This, of course, assumes that the colleges will wish to leave Scop but, given the precedent set by former polytechnics, there surely cannot be much doubt on that score.

In 1992, as the first - and as it rapidly turned out the last - CDP chief executive, I tried to persuade the directors and vice-chancellors that the existing representative bodies should be replaced by a single Association of British Universities. This could have been set up as a federal structure, to reflect not only the differing interests among the heads of institutions but also those of groups such as chairs of university councils, registrars, finance officers and so on. This common secretariat could have provided support for each individual group and made common cause where this was possible.

The then secretary of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals visited the American Council on Education, which is run along these lines, to explore the possibilities. But the proposal received little support from any quarters.

Eleven years on, the case for a single representative body that explicitly acknowledges the range and diversity of UK higher education - including higher education offered in further education colleges, companies, private providers and even UK-based overseas institutions - is even stronger. Who will give the necessary lead?

Roger Brown is principal of Southampton Institute and vice-chair of the Standing Conference of Principals. He writes in a personal capacity.

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