At the eleventh hour the universities have taken a stand. And they have taken it, as they should, on the grounds of quality control and autonomy. It has taken a long time. Views expressed with too little clarity over too long have meant that the Funding Council for England was able not to hear what it did not want to hear. This left the universities with an ugly choice: knuckle under or make a scene. This week they made a scene. Now they have to act.
They have a month to sort out with the funding council a single system for quality assurance which does not threaten their autonomy but does provide accountability for public money. As Andrew Wright writes (Letters, page 12) this should be possible. But it will require three things. The Secretary of State has set out criteria for a single system, some of which are difficult to reconcile with what the universities want. The universities and it must be the universities and not the funding council will need to discuss those criteria with the minister.
Second, the funding council will need to open its eyes to the distortions which its assessment arrangements are introducing and accept that it does not have to carry out its legal obligation to see that quality is assessed by doing the job itself.
Third, the universities will have to be robust about the accreditation and monitoring arrangements needed in any system based on self-assessment and audit.
All of this raises the structural question which HEFCE really wanted to discuss at this week's conference. Who represents and organises higher education? HEFCE has convinced itself that there must be a "vehicle with responsibility for higher education in the widest sense".
This vehicle, first suggested by the council in its submission to the education secretary's review of higher education, has grown sufficiently in the council's mind since seeing other submissions to be "floated as an idea" this week. The submissions, according to the council, share enough common characteristics to make such a vehicle, embracing the funding council, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the Standing Conference of Principals, the Confederation of British Industry - and many, many more - feasible. It sounds suspiciously like a reborn Universities Grants Committee, a hankering back to the days when the universities formed a cosy club with a buffer between them and government.
The funding council does not and cannot play this role. It is the Government's agent. This was sort of recognised by Brandon Gough, the council's chairman, when, elaborating upon the "vehicle", he said: "The funding council is not the guardian angel of higher education."
Is an overarching angel possible? Or needed? Surely, it is up to higher education to stand up for itself. The Committee of Vice Chancellors could recast their organisation to speak authoritatively for the whole of higher education. The universities are no longer a cosy, intimate group. They no longer cater only for a small minority of the population, taking a small chunk of public money. They are a major national enterprise, with widely varying strengths. There are deep splits in their ranks, principally on the issue of research funding. No guardian angel can save them from the divisions within. No monolithic organisation can determine their affairs. But there are some areas where acting collectively they pack a punch. They have done much in recent years to protect academic freedom and autonomy from the encroachment of the law. This week they stood out against an assessment system they regard as threatening that autonomy. Now comes the more difficult test: to build something for themselves.