Vice-chancellors have ushered in an era of bold university reform with the election of a new chairman committed to modernising the sector.
Howard Newby, vice-chancellor of Southampton University and vice-chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, has pledged to tackle head-on key funding issues -including the possibility of introducing differentiated fees and student fee vouchers - when he becomes CVCP chairman in August.
In an interview with The THES, Professor Newby, at 51 the CVCP's youngest chairman, spelled out his vision for a world-beating higher education system with a go-getting agenda. He promised to:
* Consult widely and negotiate with funding chiefs over a shake-up of higher education funding
* Stand firm in talks with quality watchdogs over vice-chancellors' demands for a "lighter touch" in quality assessments
* Pull no punches in the debate over academics' pay, following the outcome of the Bett inquiry, including a no-nonsense approach to equal pay for women
* Lead the sector in responding to global challenges.
Professor Newby, whose controversial paper on the future structure of British higher education is already helping to re-shape CVCP policy, said he was determined to launch an in-depth review of possible funding models that might help universities hold their own in an increasingly competitive world market.
Options that should be considered include differentiated fees, student vouchers, federal or "networked" institutions similar to the University of Wisconsin system in the United States, or funding institutions according to their mission.
Professor Newby said he wanted the CVCP's longer-term strategy group to produce a consultation paper to help push the debate forward and that could be the basis of negotiations with funding councils.
He said: "We need to decide where we want to be by 2010, find out how much consensus there is and then talk to others about how we get from here to there. The last thing we want is some form of centralist planning. But on the other hand, if the sector is left to its own devices it may take a long time to get to where we want to be."
Responses from CVCP workshops to Professor Newby's "future structure" paper signalled a willingness among vice-chancellors to consider radical steps to free universities from the restrictions of formula funding. Feedback from the workshops indicated that vouchers and fee differentials were a more popular way forward than the Wisconsin or funding-against-mission models.
Professor Newby said: "It would be stupid not to consider vouchers as one possible option among many others. Whatever option we come up with, we will have to look at it within an international rather than UK context. We have to keep one eye on the competitiveness of UK higher education in the wider world."
Professor Newby said higher education needed quickly to get to grips with proposals for a new system of quality and standards checks and it needed a regime that carried public and ministerial confidence without being too heavy-handed. He said the Quality Assurance Agency had done well to produce proposals within a year, but "the sector is still waiting to hear from them what it will mean in practice".
Professor Newby said he would keeping his powder dry on staff pay until the full details of the Bett inquiry were known, but he pledged: "I will not flinch from addressing any serious issues that emerge, including the question of pay equality."
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