All three candidates in this week's Universities UK (UUK) presidential elections are standing on a platform of "inclusivity", stressing their ability to represent all parts of the sector.
But the fact that Steve Smith, Les Ebdon and John Craven are all chairmen of rival university mission groups has led to suggestions that divisions within higher education may be becoming more sharply delineated.
"This is the first election where you can clearly see the mission groups at work and there is some concern about how divisive that might be," said one vice-chancellor who asked not to be named.
Professor Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, is chairman of the 1994 Group of smaller research-led universities. Professor Ebdon, in charge at the University of Bedfordshire, is head of the Million+ group representing post-1992 institutions. Professor Craven, vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, represents the "University Alliance", those institutions not aligned to the other mission groups.
While the Russell Group of 20 large, research-led institutions has not fielded a candidate, its vice-chancellors have historically dominated the UUK presidency and it has been suggested that it is backing the 1994 Group candidate to ensure its influence is maintained.
If Professor Smith does not win, it is suggested, there is a risk that Russell Group institutions might withdraw further from engagement with UUK.
"People have talked for some years about the potential for UUK to fragment as the sector becomes diversified, and perhaps that's what we're looking at," said the vice-chancellor.
If the vote split cleanly along mission group lines, Professor Craven would garner 24 votes to Professor Ebdon's 28 and Professor Smith's 38 (18 from the 1994 Group and 20 from the Russell Group).
A winner needs at least 67 votes, and in this scenario the winner would be decided on second-preference votes.
However, candidates' personalities have already blurred the mission-group boundaries. "There's a definite view that Les will reach outside of his grouping," said one senior source. Professor Ebdon's nominees are Alliance members, including Tim Wilson of the University of Hertfordshire and Wendy Purcell of the University of Plymouth.
An Alliance vice-chancellor said: "The Alliance vote is not a block vote in any way."
It has been suggested that Professor Smith could not take Russell Group support for granted, and that he may also pick up votes from outside the research-intensive institutions. "If you ask who do you want in a meeting with Gordon Brown, Steve would probably have it."
Rather than reading evidence of sectoral divisions into the choice of candidates, Professor Craven sees the contested election as a "sign of strength" in the sector.
He said he did not think there had been a contest for "four or five" elections, although UUK declined to confirm this, saying that elections were part of its internal processes. firstname.lastname@example.org
UUK MUST REPRESENT ALL, SAYS BEDFORDSHIRE'S EBDON
"The role of UUK is to represent all UK universities," said Les Ebdon, University of Bedfordshire vice-chancellor. Professor Ebdon believes he is uniquely able to do so.
"Whether it be research-intensive universities (because of my service on research council committees and significant research background), the small and specialist institutions I have worked with that are also part of UUK, or universities such as my own: all members need to feel their voices are being heard and that they are contributing to policy."
"There are many institutions that feel UUK is Anglocentric and dominated by one view of what a university is."
"It's very important that the person leading UUK has proven advocacy skills and can argue for all universities. We can support the economy and do so many more things for the social cohesion and culture of this country."
Professor Ebdon, who chairs the Million+ group of modern universities, was at pains to make clear that he was not standing as a Million+ candidate. He obtained his BSc and PhD in analytical chemistry from Imperial College London and has more than 250 publications to his name.
EXETER'S SMITH OFFERS HIGH-LEVEL POLITICAL ACCESS
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and chair of the 1994 Group of smaller, research-intensive universities, said that whoever was elected must represent the whole of the sector.
"We must move from a position where we support the lowest common denominator to one where we support excellence where it's found. That will mean that not everyone wins all the time. I think UUK is mature enough to recognise that the sector's strength is its diversity."
Professor Smith, who took his BSc and PhD in international relations at the University of Southampton, is close to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. "I've also had many meetings with the Conservatives," he said, noting that he chose Policy Exchange, a right-of-centre think-tank, for the launch of a 1994 Group report.
He cites his work with the National Council of Education Excellence as evidence of his ability to work with ministers on complex issues. "We delivered on the fair access agenda and widening participation - in our presentation to the Prime Minister both subjects got equal treatment. That was a difficult feat to pull off."
PORTSMOUTH'S CRAVEN CALLS FOR MORE PROGRESS ON FACTIONS
John Craven, vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, says UUK has changed in the recent past.
"I've seen it become much more inclusive and less factionalised: people debate issues across the various organisations much more than they used to."
But there is, he said, still "some way to go ... New members need to feel included as soon as possible, and getting new people involved in UUK is an important part of what I'd like to do."
Professor Craven is not campaigning on a platform of the University Alliance, the group he founded and leads. "We need to be sure that every part of the sector has confidence that UUK can help it," he said.
Commenting on his relatively low media profile, he said: "I'm perhaps not as inclined to shout about things as the other mission groups but I have a reasonable profile within the organisation."
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