Every year Scottish university principals and senior lay and academic representatives have held a residential meeting at The Burn, a country house sited in spectacular scenery beside a salmon river.
But this year, the annual conference of the Committee of Scottish University Principals has transmogrified into the first annual forum of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, held in the equally splendid but less bucolic surroundings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
The decision is a pragmatic one: with the advent of the new universities, The Burn had difficulty in accommodating four representatives from each of 13 institutions. But it is also significant that today's forum embraces all of Scotland's 21 higher education institutions rather than continuing as an exclusive university event.
England's key lobby organisation is the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, representing only universities, and it is questionable even its revamped form how equal its members are. But it is COSHEP, representing every Scottish principal, which has emerged as the point of contact for political, industrial and educational interests in Scotland. An English COSHEP would be an impossibility because of sheer numbers and geographical spread. In Scotland, it is easy for all the institutional heads to meet in one place. But the transition to a unitary system has also been helped by the different ethos of Scottish higher education.
Even before the legislation abolishing the binary divide, while English heads were eying one another with suspicion, CSUP had invited the new university principals-designate to join it. There was less of a difference between the traditional universities and the centrally-funded colleges. While the English polytechnics dramatically expanded their subject base and intakes, the Scottish Office Education Department ensured its institutions stuck to their historic, largely monotechnic thrust.
Heads of institutions did not have the same level of marketing and managerial thrust as their English counterparts, and the absence of their own funding council made competitiveness less overt, and diversity of mission more acceptable.
For the foreseeable future, CSUP and the Conference of Scottish Centrally Funded Colleges will survive separately to discuss specific issues such as pay and pensions, but both committees are serviced by the COSHEP secretariat. Although COSHEP has so far been chaired by principals from traditional universities (initially Michael Hamlin, former principal of Dundee, and now John Arbuthnott from Strathclyde), it appears that all its members have an equal voice.
Bernard King, principal of the University of Abertay Dundee and chairman of CSCFC, says: "The two conveners have done superb jobs in trying to ensure that COSHEP represents the sector as a whole." John Sizer, chief executive of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, says: "I do not hear any complaints from the education colleges and art colleges that it is dominated by the big boys who are not interested in them."
SHEFC's corporate plan is brimming with references to discussions with COSHEP. It meets COSHEP every time it issues a consultation paper, and has an annual debate with all the members as well as routinely talking to the COSHEP executive.
"From my point of view, relations are excellent," Professor Sizer says. "We sit round the table rather than across the table."
He believes that COSHEP's existence has underpinned SHEFC's moves to encourage regional collaboration among institutions."My view is that you cannot force collaboration on institutions. It has to be bottom up. COSHEP has created a relationship of trust. We can go and talk to all the principals in a particular area without them feeling suspicious" A major success of regional collaboration is the Metropolitan Area Networks, or MANs, high-speed broad-band networks that will allow interractive multimedia links within and among higher education institutions by the autumn.
Professor Arbuthnott, who chairs the Joint Information Systems Committee developing networks throughout the United Kingdom, believes Scotland is well down the track of having the best higher education network in Europe.
"Information technology is an area in which I think Scotland is moving rapidly ahead of England. I think relations south of the border are much more competitive, and that impedes collaboration to some extent. There's a high degree of mutual respect among the Scottish principals, and it's possible for us to do business together," he says.
The principals also set great store by their institutions' economic and cultural links with the wider community. COSHEP is participating enthusiastically in a major inquiry into the commercialisation of the Scottish science base being carried out by the RSE and Scottish Enterprise.
Again, Scotland's size and structures have helped: Scottish Enterprise is a single umbrella body promoting economic development, and leading industrialists are active on academic governing bodies and in SHEFC.
"I think we will have a much better view of higher education's potential in relation to the Scottish economic plan, and that's not happening in England in any concerted way," Professor Arbuthnott says.
COSHEP is campaigning vociferously against continuing efficiency gains, lobbying politicians of all parties and stressing the impact of higher education on Scotland as a whole, and its status as a single body for the whole sector undoubtedly increases the impact of its message.
COSHEP has emerged as a cohesive group, because of a pragmatism which has so far eluded England. The institutions all have special qualities and all want to succeed, but realise that by banding together, they maximise their chances of success. "It is Scottish canniness," Professor Arbuthnott said.