Put not faith in hope alone

June 30, 1995

Council of the Committee of Vice Chancellors' and Principals meets today, on its agenda quality assurance. Another attempt will be made by the chairman and officers to push through the Higher Education Funding Council for England's proposals for a unified system.

Three weeks ago the full meeting of the CVCP rejected those proposals decisively. In last week's THES Leslie Wagner spelt out why. Also in last week's THES, the CVCP's outgoing secretary, Tom Burgner, prepared the ground for unpicking the committee's decision. The response to the proposals would, he said, be based not only on the committee's views but on "written submissions invited from CVCP members". Although the main committee of the CVCP is the nearest thing Britain's universities have to a comprehensive representative body, it seems the CVCP office does not regard its decisions as binding.

How far the chairman and officers hope to resile from the committee's decision is revealed in the draft letter to the Secretary of State prepared for discussion today. The letter implicitly accepts that the funding council plan will go ahead and relies on hope and belief that the proposed system will "evolve" into something more acceptable.

Why should the CVCP believe that it will be any better able to influence the development of a system it has accepted than it has been able to influence one for which its approval was desired? The funding council has not shifted from claiming total control over the quality assessment process despite the rows of recent months.

It is proposed the chairman should write: "I understand that the funding council is very willing to discuss the details for the setting up of the joint planning group and I look forward to early discussions on this topic". Discuss it it probably will, like it has before. Certainly in private with the chairman, Kenneth Edwards. But taking notice is another matter. The impression which has emerged to date is that Dr Edwards has been more funding council ally than protagonist for the universities.

The CVCP is a difficult body to orchestrate. This tempts its officers and officials into trying to fix the business in recent years. There have been a number of attempts at reform with a view to producing greater openness and a more authoritative, because more representative, voice for the universities. Elections for chairman and council were introduced in the late 1980s instead of having suitable names "emerge". Further reforms have resulted in the appointment of Diana Warwick as first chief executive. Getting the quality arrangements right could be the first test of this latest reform - if the outgoing regime does not get its way today in bundling through acceptance of a scheme which does not command support.

There is no desperate hurry. Ministers have other things on their minds. Civil servants' impatience can be safely disregarded. A brief response now relaying the main committee's rejection of the HEFCE proposals should be followed by detailed work on the CVCP's own plan as promised. That may not produce a relaxing summer but it could produce better quality assurance.

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