Proposals for devolution and university colleges put the CVCP in the spotlight, writes Tony Tysome
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is preparing for a shake-up in the way it works and represents its members.
As the CVCP endeavours to give a collective voice to universities in the national debate on British higher education, key figures within it say it is facing the greatest pressure for change since directors of the former polytechnics were granted membership in 1992.
Devolution in Scotland and Wales is the biggest challenge to the national standing of the committee, with Scottish and Welsh institutions looking forward to being separately governed and dealing with new policy issues.
But the establishment of university pressure groups with often conflicting aims has also brought into question the ability of the CVCP to represent its 112 members in such an increasingly broad church.
Some vice-chancellors and CVCP officials believe the government's proposal to create a new category of institution, the university college, will heighten calls for a review of the committee's membership and structure.
There are even those who think that growing collaboration with the representative bodies of further education colleges is inevitable as further education takes on a bigger share of sub-degree work.
Most feel little doubt that the CVCP will survive as an umbrella organisation, but not without it taking a "new approach" to its role.
Diana Warwick, CVCP chief executive, said devolution might compel the committee to change its structure. Its relationship with the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals and the Heads of Higher Education Wales will inevitably change as these bodies begin to deal with their own parliament or assembly.
"But as well as taking account of Scotland and Wales we will also have to respond to what is happening in the regions and the Regional Development Agencies. And we will have to look at increasing moves to link with further education, which we are placing a lot of importance on," she said.
The practical implications would be "making sure our staff and members of our sector groups are more outward-looking".
Martin Harris, Manchester University vice-chancellor and CVCP chairman, said the committee's structure will have to be geared to maintaining close links with internal groups such as the Russell Group and representing their views.
"The CVCP will need to represent to the government and society the fact that there are different strengths and priorities within our diverse system, and rather than articulate one common position it will be necessary to articulate a range of points of view which between them represent what institutions are seeking," he said.
Some pressure groups, however, are calling for more fundamental changes. The Coalition of Modern Universities wants the CVCP to transform its "cumbersome" structure into one where quick responses and decisions are easier: a structure more like a new university than an old one.
A CMU spokeswoman said: "We would like to get away from having a vast committee structure and large-scale meetings that slow things down in terms of policy development and, more importantly, in terms of responsiveness. We have to ask whether the CVCP might not reflect the changes that have taken place in institutions."
Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, said the CVCP had to realise that the status quo was no longer acceptable. Its failure to take on board the views of its members had weakened its position on top-up fees and research funding selectivity.
"If you were to ask whether the CVCP needs to recognise more than it has in the past that there are different constituencies within it, the answer would have to be yes," he said.
Professor Knight said he would welcome any decision to give a representative position on the CVCP council to the Standing Conference of Principals, which has moved into the same building as the CVCP but has no formal link.
Such a move would take the CVCP a step closer in organisation and structure to its equivalent body in the United States, the American Council on Education. The ACE's membership takes in the full range of institutions from community colleges to the biggest elite research universities. Although it has a fully elected council and holds national conferences, it also tackles issues raised by internal groups.
With the government proposing formal recognition of the university college as a new category of institution, higher education college heads might hope to see the CVCP move in the US direction.
Norman Taylor, SCOP chairman, said that while the CVCP has jealously guarded its membership, there is "some logic in having a single body".
He said: "If you took the continuum of the CVCP and you added SCOP it would not look odd or surprising. It is up to the CVCP, but if there was an invitation to join we would consider it on its merits."