The CVCP at a watershed

October 4, 1996

A managed market gives the committee its best chance of survival. Planning or a free market could break it up, say Ted Tapper and Brian Salter.

One of the more interesting aspects of the contemporary debate on the future of higher education in Britain is the very prominent role of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. With the demise of the University Grants Committee and the widely held belief among many academics, including some vice chancellors, that the funding councils are little more than an arm of the state, the CVCP is the only body that has a serious claim to speak on behalf of the universities.

In effect the committee has become a proactive pressure group which mobilises public opinion, intervenes in the parliamentary process, and formulates sophisticated policy proposals on a range of issues. While some may claim that it has merely reacted timidly to an increasingly severe Government straitjacket, others have been impressed by the concessions it has won.

The committee moved into its proactive mode before the expansion of the university sector which followed the passage of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. The key question is whether it can continue, indeed enhance, the effectiveness of its input into the policy-making process in its new expanded form.

One obvious innovation would be to take the initiative in setting the agenda for higher education, rather than simply responding to Government pressure. To some extent it did this with its suggestion that the universities should consider imposing a uniform top-up fee of Pounds 300. Similar moves are afoot, which this time may come to fruition, should there be no easing of the financial pressure in the forthcoming Government statement on its public expenditure plans.

The most obvious internal constraint upon the effectiveness of the CVCP's input into the policy debates is the diverse character of its membership. This is not simply a divide between the new and the old universities for, in spite of a widely shared belief in the idea of a university, the university system in Britain has always had its internal hierarchy.

The most divisive issue is how the state's financial support for research is to be distributed. There is pressure to concentrate public resources for research on no more than a dozen universities in the belief that if the jam continues to be spread too thinly British higher education will lose its reputation for research excellence. It will be interesting to see whether the committee could endorse such a proposal and what recompense, if any, would be demanded by those universities deemed not to be part of the magic circle.

As important as, if not more important than, the competing interests of the universities to the future effectiveness of the CVCP is the funding framework that the Government intends to impose upon the higher education system. In its latter days, as most clearly seen in its endeavours to rationalise the distribution of academic departments, the UGC was rapidly becoming a planning body. The funding councils have purposely not engaged in such activities, at least not until very recently. They have established what can probably best be described as a managed market, that is, they establish the terms (clearly strongly influenced by the Government) on which the universities compete for public funds. While it may be argued that such a framework presents the universities with little more than Hobson's choice, at least the onus is upon the universities to decide where they can best maximise their efforts. For example, the University of Central England has not always competed for research funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The managed market is conducive to the development of a potent CVCP. On the one hand, it can influence the terms on which the market is managed; for example how competence in research and teaching are to be measured and how the funding should match those measurements.

On the other hand, it can avoid making those hard decisions that a planning model would necessitate. What would be the impact upon the CVCP if it had the responsibility of determining which 12 universities should be eligible to receive research funding? It is difficult to imagine that it could survive making such a divisive decision.

If a planning regime were to reappear (and after Dearing has reported and the General Election has passed, things may look very different), then one can imagine significant pressures within universities to ensure that the committee's values and procedures did not work against their interests. The departmental rationalisations that occurred under the auspices of the UGC were determined more by the leading professors than by the CVCP. Many academics would find it difficult to sit back and be designated part of a department which was ineligible to receive research income from the funding councils. In such circumstances vice chancellors are more likely to be driven by the dominant interests on their campuses rather than the sentiments expressed at CVCP meetings. After all, in the final analysis their salaries are paid by their universities and not by the CVCP.

The curbing of the expansion of student numbers (obviously driven by the Government's desire to curtail public expenditure), and the possible future designation for research purposes of a small number of universities (or perhaps named departments across a wider range of universities), point to the possible emergence of a new planning phase in state-university relations.

However, in recent years the universities have increasingly engaged in entrepreneurial activities to augment their incomes. As part of the same development many of them have made explicit appeals to their communities on the grounds that they are deserving of local support because they are an economic, social and cultural asset to the region. In the context of a more competitive university system, with many institutions trumpeting their essentially local credentials, one may well ask what is the use of a body like the CVCP?

While it could attempt to regulate inter-university competition in the marketplace, it is difficult to imagine that it could do little more than issue very general guidelines, and one can only speculate as to their effectiveness if individual institutions felt that their interests were jeopardised by them. Moreover, while the committee might consider it appropriate that local deals should conform to criteria that it had determined, it is exceedingly doubtful whether it could monitor such initiatives.

Perhaps the key short-term consideration is what arrangements will emerge in the light of Dearing's report to support the payment of tuition fees and student maintenance. If, as seems likely, students will be required to meet their maintenance costs and to pay at least a percentage of their tuition fees (a development to be accompanied - we hope - by a viable income-contingent loans scheme) then the temptation for both students and universities to establish a market would be very strong. For example, if Oxbridge students have to pay the college fee, then what price a history degree at Oxford or a mathematics degree at Cambridge? The CVCP very successfully scotched the attempt of the Universities Funding Council to encourage the universities to bid for student numbers at varying prices, but in the context of a system in which students are paying an increasing percentage of their own costs then it is doubtful if it could once again act as an effective cartel.

Given the rapid changes that the British system of higher education has experienced in the past decade, it would be foolish to predict the future with any degree of confidence. However, it is not too bold to claim that the CVCP, like the system itself, is at a watershed in its history. If the present managed market continues then the committee can be expected to operate effectively in spite of its internal differences. However a new planning regime would be likely to fragment the committee by tying the vice chancellors too closely to the internal pressures of their universities. Should market forces, led by students paying their own fees, and, not surprisingly, demanding value for money, prevail, then we will have a situation which is both difficult for the CVCP to monitor and in which the temptation to break ranks is enormous. Will, therefore, the centre hold? It seems unlikely.

Ted Tapper is reader in politics at the University of Sussex and Brian Salter is reader in public policy at the University of Kent.

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