The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals may have its first president from a post-1992 university.
Roderick Floud, provost of London Guildhall University, is one of two candidates standing in the election for the post, which is currently held by vice-chancellor of Southampton University Sir Howard Newby.
Essex vice-chancellor Ivor Crewe is the other candidate.
Ballot papers for the election were issued on Tuesday.
Professor Floud, an economic historian, is vice-president of the CVCP and chairman of its England and Northern Ireland Council.
He is also a member of the sector strategy committee of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and was part of the group that undertook its fundamental review of research policy.
Professor Floud taught at Birkbeck College, London, when Baroness Tessa Blackstone, who is now higher education minister, was master.
He was nominated by Sir Kenneth Calman, vice-chancellor of Durham University, and by Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University and chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities.
In an election address to CVCP members, Professor Floud pointed out he had worked in old universities - which include University College London and Cambridge - and has experience of the new-university sector.
He said: "CVCP represents a diverse sector, and its president must be alive to the differing needs and wishes of all its members.
"We must remain an organisation that meets the needs of our VC members but... we must also lead the diverse groups which together represent and serve British universities."
Professor Crewe was nominated by Oxford vice-chancellor Colin Lucas and Glasgow University's principal, Sir Graeme Davies.
He became well-known to the British public as a psephologist for the BBC and in the 1980s and 90s. Professor Crewe now chairs the foundation degree group set up by the government.
If elected, he would be the third head, of the post-1992 CVCP, with a connection to Essex University. Professor Newby was a colleague of Professor Crewe's at Essex, and Sir Martin Harris, Manchester University vice-chancellor and former CVCP chairman, is a former vice-chancellor of Essex.
The result of the election is due on November and the new president will take up the post on August 1 next year.