Shout, and shout in chorus

January 14, 2005

If HE institutions don't want to be played off against one another, they must unite, insists Roger Brown

Higher education possesses a fragmented voice. A plethora of bodies claim to represent the huge variety of interests in the sector.

And to some extent, the Government is able to play off one group of institutions against another. Our unique character is increasingly threatened by powerful interests, public and private, that seek to bend universities to their will.

At the same time, the struggle for an adequate share of resources gets harder, and successive government policies impact on quality and standards.

Unless higher education gets its act together and mobilises everyone who is interested in it, we face further deterioration in our position.

We need a coherent voice, one that will raise the profile of the sector and harness the huge constituency out there that wants us to prosper.

With the imminent creation of a number of "new new" universities, there is, more urgently than ever, a need for an effective single body to represent us all.

Universities UK claims to be the voice of higher education, but unless it changes its rules of admission, it will not encompass the newcomers.

It has set up a working party to look into this matter but its discussion will involve only existing vice-chancellors and will ask only how its own regulations might best be changed.

The real issue is how do we create an effective representative body for the whole of UK higher education? Such a new organisation must include not only publicly funded universities but also major further education colleges, privately funded institutions, local campuses of foreign universities and even businesses.

It needs to embrace a much wider range of interests than the executive heads of institutions, important as they are.

Chairs of council, registrars, finance directors, heads of personnel - all need to be included in some way, not least so that the sector can mobilise as wide a range of political interests as possible.

This is something that existing bodies have failed to do. The new body needs a wider range of representative functions. In particular, with higher education being increasingly offered internationally, there needs to be an organisation that promotes and protects the interests of UK higher education wherever it is delivered.

Institutions should coordinate and lead this effort and supply the expertise - not the funding council or any other government agency.

The new body clearly cannot be unitary. UUK has already accepted a two-tier structure to accommodate devolution to Scotland and Wales. The organisation may need a collegial set-up whereby groups of institutions and/or interest groups have recognised separate existences.

There might be a single secretariat offering core services such as European briefings to which institutions would subscribe through their member groups.

Ideally, the creation of a new body would take place over a long period and involve prolonged consultation with all those involved.

The timescale for creating the "new new" institutions, with government decisions expected early this year, may make this difficult.

This reinforces the urgency of concrete understanding being reached between the main constituents of the new body - UUK and the Standing Conference of Principals - sooner rather than later.

It is 12 years since polytechnic directors were incorporated into what is now UUK. We cannot wait another 12 years to create an effective representative body for all UK higher education.

Roger Brown is principal of Southampton Institute.

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