The future of the body that represents higher education colleges was in doubt this week as it emerged that up to half its members could seek university status.
Leaders of the Standing Conference of Principals, which held its annual conference this week, have admitted that the ambitions of member institutions could mean "an end to Scop as we know it".
They have called on college heads to consider whether Scop should be scrapped, subsumed into Universities UK or reorganised to represent mostly small specialist institutions and possibly further education colleges that have a high proportion of higher education students.
Patricia Ambrose, Scop's chief executive, told The Times Higher that Scop leaders were "keeping an open mind" about the options. But she said the changes reflected the need for higher education colleges to reconsider their position within a sector that was being transformed by the Higher Education Act.
She said: "I do not think any institution, whatever its nature, can afford to stand still - and that is particularly true for higher education colleges. One of the things we are beginning to think about is what that means for Scop. We will see some quite major changes, not just in terms of membership, but in the landscape of the sector."
She said Scop's member institutions might now be divided into three broad categories:
* Colleges that are about to apply for university status under new rules brought in by the Act
* Those whose short-term goal is to gain taught degree-awarding powers, in most cases with a view to eventually applying for a university title
* Small specialist institutions.
The first category represents nearly a third of Scop members. Added to the second, it brings the total that might eventually become universities to more than half of the 33-strong membership. "It could mean an end to Scop as we know it. It might be that we will need a different structure to represent the sector," said Ms Ambrose.
Dianne Willcocks, Scop's chair and principal of York St John College, told delegates: "I see the next year as an important transitional year within the higher education sector - and I think the same holds true for Scop itself."
The conference considered the position of higher education colleges in the light of On the Edge , a joint report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, on sustainable futures in the sector. Ms Ambrose said the report was about finding a balance between responding to the needs of a rapidly changing market and the demands of government policies.
"We need to look at the kind of institutions Scop represents and ask what are their strengths and how they can capitalise on them in this changing environment," she said.
WHAT NOW FOR SCOP MEMBERS?
Preparing to bid for university status
Bath Spa University College; Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College; Canterbury Christ Church University College; Chester College; University College Chichester; University College Winchester; Liverpool Hope; University College Northampton; Southampton Institute; University College Worcester
Planning to merge and form new universities of the arts
Kent Institute of Art & Design; Surrey Institute of Art and Design University College
Preparing to bid for taught degree-awarding powers and possible university status in the longer term
Edge Hill College; The College of St Mark and St John; St Martin's College; St Mary's College; York St John College
Small specialist colleges
The Arts Institute Bournemouth; Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies; Bishop Grosseteste College; Central School of Speech and Drama; Cumbria Institute of the Arts; Dartington College of Arts; Falmouth College of Arts; Harper Adams University College; Newman College of Higher Education; Norwich School of Art and Design; Ravensbourne College; Rose Bruford College; Royal Agricultural College; Trinity and All Saints College; Wimbledon School of Art; Writtle College