New brand must make its policy decisions now

December 1, 2000

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is dead. Long live Universities UK, launched today. To go with a new image, the universities' think-tank and pressure group also has a new president-elect, Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of Guildhall University, and a hard-hitting new report, drawn up by London Economics, on the money universities need and how it might be raised.

Professor Floud, particularly welcome as the first vice-chancellor of a post-1992 university to head the organisation, won the job by a margin not much more comfortable than that of America's next president. It is hoped this does not represent deep division within the newly branded organisation, but rather a choice between more or less evenly matched candidates. Universities UK cannot afford division. The organisation has now manoeuvred itself into a strong position. If agreement can be reached this spring on one of the options modelled in the London Economics report, Universities UK will have the chance to fight for that option during the run-up to the next election, a good time to secure promises from politicians, particularly when there will be many MPs with marginal constituencies in which universities are important.

But agreement will not be easy. Geoffrey Copland's plea for fairer treatment for universities outside a small, research-heavy elite illuminates tensions inside Universities UK. The abolition of up-front fees and restoration of grants in Scotland, along with the large student demonstration in London earlier this month, warn of pressures from outside. (All London Economics' options assume additional student contributions.) Like the CVCP, Universities UK remains constitutionally a chief executives' club with a policy unit bolted on. Lack of visibility may be correctable. Lack of authority over member organisations is unaltered. Effectiveness depends on consensus and this has never been achieved on the key matter of funding, beyond agreeing to demand more public money.

The challenge for the next few months - Professor Floud does not take over until summer - is to achieve agreement on a single policy option. Success would put Universities UK in a good position to take on new ministers after the election as well as a new regime at the English funding council in the autumn, where a chief executive is expected to be appointed soon. Failure will leave the new brand with the same problems as the CVCP.

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