The Government may prevent someone from the university sector taking over the post of director-general for higher education, vice-chancellors believe, writes Anna Fazackerley.
Sir Alan Wilson, who was appointed to the position in the Department for Education and Skills in 2003, announced his intention to leave last week.
He takes over the presidency of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in September.
But university heads with links to the DfES said that there was a big question mark over the director-general position. One vice-chancellor said:
"There is a view that having a high-quality civil servant in the role would be as advantageous to the sector as having an academic."
When Sir Alan's post was introduced it was trumpeted as a promotion for higher education. Any move to downgrade or change it could ruffle feathers in the community, fuelling fears that universities have dropped off the political map now that top-up fees are on the statute books.
A second university head said: "I've heard that the DfES is cooling on having a vice-chancellor or someone from the sector. But I think that Alan has provided a high-profile bridge between the Government and institutions. He has stopped policy being created on the hoof."
The director-general crown sits a little uncomfortably alongside that of the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and some vice-chancellors believe that there is no need for both positions. They predicted this week that Hefce might try to use Sir Alan's departure as an excuse to regain control.
If the post is opened to the sector, Ivor Crewe, vice-chancellor of Essex University and former Universities UK president, is being mooted as favourite.
A vice-chancellor with links to the DfES said: "If they were going round the block again for someone similar, Ivor would probably throw his hat in the ring."
A DfES spokseperson said: "No decisions have been taken to change current arrangements."