The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is to shake off its 'inaccessible' image and reorganise along regional lines to meet institutions' new challenges. Tony Tysome reports
Vice-chancellors are shaking off the cobwebs of the 20th century to enter the next millennium with a shiny new image and a more representative body.
A fresh structure, outlook, and even a new name and logo, are all part of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' bid to take on the challenges its member institutions now face.
CVCP chiefs are hoping that their reorganisation, shaped on regional lines, will prove effective in response to devolution, globalisation, Europe and increasing diversity in the sector.
And they have ordered a review of the CVCP's corporate identity after an attitude survey this year found that people outside the sector saw it as "inward-looking, clubby, bureaucratic and inaccessible".
The survey found that external stakeholders believed the CVCP's profile should be higher - a view expressed in the past by opposition politicians frustrated by an organisation they felt was neither pro-active nor quick enough to respond to emerging issues.
Such critics might point out that the CVCP's rush to restructure itself in the space of one year was simply a survivalist tactic in the face of devolution. But insiders say that changes in the sector that have led to the emergence of groups of institutions with a common interest, and stronger regional forces in England, would have led to a fairly rapid review anyway.
Howard Newby, CVCP president, admits that devolution was the key motivation for reorganisation and that there will have to be "a period of bedding down" before further developments can be contemplated.
The new structure consists of:
A United Kingdom-wide 17-strong board headed by Professor Newby, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, and elected by all CVCP members
A national council for England and Northern Ireland made up of all heads of English institutions on the UK board and chaired by Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Guildhall University
A Scottish arm consisting of members of the Council of Scottish Higher Education Principals, including heads of all higher education institutions in Scotland and chaired by Ian Graham-Bryce, vice-chancellor of the University of Dundee
A Welsh arm made up of members of the Heads of Higher Education Wales and chaired by John O. Williams, principal of the North East Wales Institute of Higher Education
Professor Newby said this reorganisation should operate "on the principle of subsidiarity". The English Council, Coshep and HHEW will deal directly with their own parliamentary systems and funding councils on regional issues, while working in conjunction with the UK-wide board and organisation on issues with nationwide implications, such as the fees, which are being examined by the Cubie committee.
CVCP chiefs are aware of the dangers inherent in a structure that allows for greater autonomy for regional groups.
Regular meetings between the regional and UK-wide bodies will help guard against breakdowns of communication and excessive bureaucracy, Professor Newby insists.
"Everyone recognises that initially, at least, we have to be a little bit tolerant as the structure beds down. But we are fairly confident that it will not slow things down," he said.
He can see there is a particular danger that politicians might attempt to divide and rule the sector by exploiting any apparent divisions that might emerge through the new structure. But according to Professor Newby there is a "clear determination" among vice-chancellors that this should not happen. "We have a very diverse sector and from time to time it is difficult to ensure that we make a coherent case and speak with one voice. But I am absolutely determined that we should do this," he said.
Despite some apparent hiccups over submissions to the Cubie committee from Coshep and the CVCP, where internal sources claim there was a breakdown of communication, Dr Graham-Bryce is confident that the new structure will work out as planned.
He said: "Clearly, there will be times when there is a Scottish dimension to a UK-wide issue, and there could be occasions when there is a different point of view north of the border. We will have to manage that."
Professor Williams said Welsh university and college heads were hoping the support of the CVCP UK board would help protect their institutions from being cornered by the new Welsh Assembly over parochial issues, and from becoming cut off from the rest of the sector as a result. The CVCP has also increased its spending on supporting administrative and policy posts in local offices in both Wales and Scotland.
"We would wish to force into the debate a national perspective on teaching and research. Otherwise we will become isolated in our requests for more student numbers. We will have a more realistic resources base to help us in that," Professor Williams said.
Professor Floud said the emergence of regional development agencies in England is likely to be "very significant indeed" for higher education, and the establishment of an English CVCP council is therefore an essential element of the reorganisation.
He believes the involvement of universities and higher education colleges in regional groups in RDA areas will provide enough "bottom-up" coherence to overcome any disgruntlement among English college heads over the fact that they have been left out of the new, otherwise all-encompassing, structure.
The Standing Conference of Principals was consulted on whether English college heads should be allowed to join the CVCP. The question was a controversial one because Coshep had insisted that all of its members, which include college principals, should be included. Welsh college principals have also been offered associate membership of the CVCP.
Patricia Ambrose, chief executive of the Standing Conference of Principals, said there were never any formal negotiations between Scop and the CVCP on this issue. Scop chairman Norman Taylor was simply invited to a meeting to "exchange information".
Although Scop members did not want a merger with the CVCP, they were "very much interested in the idea of moving more towards a confederate model along the lines of the American model", she said.
Tony Bruce, CVCP policy chief, said that while there were "lessons to be learned" from the United States model, the all-embracing American Council on Education, it was too early to decide whether it was the right direction for British higher education.
Professor Floud agreed with this view. He said: "I think there is much to be said for a coherent voice for British higher education. But there are a lot of developments on the horizon, and it makes sense to wait and see what new structures emerge."
The growth of other interest groups, such as the Russell Group, the 1994 group of smaller research-led universities, which has reinforced its identity with a new logo, has been seen as another force that could shake the unity of the CVCP.
But Ivor Crewe, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex and chairman of the group, said there was no desire either to have any formal representation within the CVCP or to break away from it.
He said: "Inevitably, now that the CVCP has grown to be such a large organisation, although there are issues that all universities share, there are clearly some interests that matter to some universities more than others. We find it useful to meet to discuss such issues and from time to time to raise them within the CVCP."
But Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England and a member of the CVCP UK board, thought that the regional dimension, if not pressure from special interest groups, would eventually split the CVCP.
"I think the structure will lead to more regional power to the extent that Scotland and Wales will find it difficult to stay with us. The UK board will also have less to do as it allows the English council to take on more work. At the moment, the UK body is the glue that holds it all together, but that glue is weakening," he said.
Not surprisingly, this is not a view shared by chief executive Diana Warwick.
"The fact that these changes have taken place will provide a new dimension to the CVCP's work. The emphasis will almost certainly change as a result of regional development," she said. "But it means there will be greater demand for us to find the kind of policy support and research universities will need to help them in their regions."