Precious unity must be kept

September 29, 1995

Agreement at last. As promised, Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard wrote late last week to the Committee of Vice Chancellors accepting in broad terms their proposals for quality assurance in UK higher education (page 2). And this week the incoming chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Brian Fender, told the THES (page 3) he was not minded to dispute her decision.

There is, of course, a great deal of detailed work to be done to bring the new agency into being, work which will require skill, care, tact and persistence. However, the broad outline is now settled: an independent agency will supply the funding councils with the information they need to discharge their statutory obligations but not be controlled by them.

This represents a substantial victory for the vice chancellors, one which demonstrates what a formidable force the CVCP can be when it is united, when it is clear about its objectives and when those objectives are shared by the academic community.

It has not been easy. The funding councils have been determined in their efforts to exercise control and, at least until Mrs Shephard's arrival, they appeared to be acting on Government instruction. It was her great good sense in backing away from an increasingly ugly confrontation which left them in an impossible position. Even so it has taken a long time to prise their fingers off the levers.

What follows from this victory is that the universities must now themselves establish a system which commands consent within as well as respect without. It is easier to criticise than to create.

Knowing this is perhaps what made vice chancellors slow to take up the cudgels. Until now they have had the support of their academic colleagues. Now they will replace the funding councils in the hot seat. The joint planning group will be well advised to move fast, before sobering memories of the unacceptable alternative fade away.

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