A report on Universities UK is critical of its attempts to 'suppress' differences of opinion among members, say Paul Hill and Anna Fazackerley
Independent consultants have been brought in to assess the "full range of activities and value for money" of Universities UK amid calls for the vice-chancellors' body to be more open about differences of opinion over the future direction of higher education, The Times Higher has learnt.
The main committee of the vice-chancellors' body met behind closed doors on December 2 to consider a report about UUK's future structure and lobbying.
According to the report, there is no desire in the sector for UUK to merge with the Standing Conference of Principals - which represents colleges - or for UUK to cease its role lobbying the Government where there is consensus among member universities.
But the report adds: "UUK needs to acknowledge differences of view among members more openly and not strive constantly to suppress or finesse them.
"Attempts to formulate a consensual position are not always helpful, especially when they lead to anodyne statements that fail to represent any part of the sector satisfactorily.
"It should continue to accept the current reality of separate lobbying activity by different mission and geographical groups."
The report reveals that organising UUK along regional lines was discussed but rejected as it did not have sufficient support. The report - produced by a working party of vice-chancellors - says that UUK needs to change to reflect "the creation of new universities" and the fact that the "main mission groups have become increasingly professional in their approach".
It recommends that independent consultants be commissioned to review the work of UUK and report back to vice-chancellors with their conclusions in March.
The consultants will consider: the range of issues that UUK engages in, the cost of activities, membership services, the efficiency and value for money of current membership services, subscription rates and alternative funding sources.
A UUK spokesman said: "Yes, we are currently working with independent consultants. We've done this before. UUK undertook a similar review of its services in 1999, using outside consultants, and we used the results to improve our services and take the organisation forward. We are carrying out a similar exercise now to ensure that we can be flexible and continue to recognise and respond to the needs of our members."
Among the other recommendations is that UUK's management consider setting up an "account manager" system that would create a "permanent personal channel of communication between the member, their institution and UUK".
The report also recommends that the heads of higher education's lobby groups - the Russell Group, Campaigning for Mainstream Universities and the 1994 Group - agree to share information on "policy and lobbying".
No one from the Russell Group was available for comment. But one source said: "We're all trying to come to terms with the new environment - including the accession of new universities - and how UUK best deals with the fact there are distinct groupings of universities and a large un-aligned group.
"Nothing will be decided before the spring, and there are a number of working groups looking at different issues."
David Eastwood, chairman of the 1994 Group of universities, said: "The Russell Group and the 1994 Group welcome the review of services and subscription options and look forward to engaging in the process."
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, said: "I think the fact that peace and harmony broke out at the UUK meeting shouldn't obscure the fact that there are very significant differences emerging. It is about the segmentation of the higher education market.
"Some members feel they pay a lot and are not quite sure what they get for it. The three main groups have all beefed up their executive structure. The question is if UUK does this for us and it costs x, do we want them to continue doing it or could we do it ourselves."