V-cs must grab political advantage

September 22, 1995

The years following the 1988 Education Reform Act have been among the most eventful in the recent history of the universities. The changes have been dramatic. Where have they left the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals - and how well equipped is it to face the next decade?

The key changes which have transformed the environment in which the CVCP operates include first a radical increase in both the number and diversity of students; second, the explicit formal positioning of government in higher education policy, through the replacement of the non-statutory University Grants Committee with statutory bodies; third and of most immediate impact on the CVCP, was the abolition of the binary line and the granting of university status and title to the polytechnics.

The most direct challenge - the growth in the number of universities - has paradoxically proved the easiest to tackle. After a long and occasionally fraught courtship the marriage of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics and CVCP was accomplished fairly smoothly. All CDP members opted to join CVCP; several CDP staff joined the CVCP office, ensuring some basic continuity of knowledge and experience; the higher education agencies (Higher Education Quality Council, Universities Central Admissions Service, Higher Education Statistics Agency and the rest) merged or were recreated accordingly; and the average subscription substantially reduced to reflect economies of scale.

Of course larger numbers (more than 100 institutions) and the increased diversity of membership makes the CVCP less homogeneous - less club-like; and some members experience the diminished intimacy as a real loss. Meetings of the full committee, reduced to one a term, still need to find a purpose and a focus, although the opportunities for informal contact and gossip can be useful. But the real heart of the organisation, the 20-strong executive council, works well with genuine commitment. An outsider sitting in on the discussions - and the debate can be vigorous - would not easily be able to identify who was representing "old" or "new" universities. Here, if anywhere, is an understanding of the need of the universities to speak with a single voice.

But the greater diversity has clearly made it more difficult to get agreement about the policies and the messages which the CVCP should be promoting. This is a major challenge facing the enlarged organisation. Some see the problem as well-nigh insurmountable - a choice between silence on controversial issues or bland statements which lack any cutting edge.

However the evidence supports a more positive view. Probably the two biggest issues facing the universities today are funding and the question of quality and standards. A representative body worth its salt must be able to articulate a collective view on these matters. On that test the CVCP is not doing badly, even though there have been, and almost certainly still are, considerable differences of view among the membership. On funding it has, through staff work and consultancy, developed principles to which virtually all members would now subscribe and active public relations and lobbying activity has helped to spread understanding of the problem and possible solutions among a wide range of opinion formers. There is indeed a considerable degree of consensus among employers, political parties and academia about the way forward. All that is lacking is the political will, which hopefully will emerge after the next general election.

On quality and standards progress has until recently been slow. It has taken time to overcome the polarisation that resulted from having different groups and methodologies embodied in the HEFCs and the HEQC, all of which have their champions. The CVCP's recent letter to Mrs Shephard on quality assurance may well have broken the logjam and, if underpinned with essential work on standards, may chart the way forward. So far, then, the record is a good deal more favourable than the cynics, inside or outside the CVCP, allow. What are the conditions of future success? From a long list I would highlight two - one a major opportunity, the other a continuing threat.

First, the CVCP must capitalise more fully on the political advantage that expansion has brought. Universities will never match schools in their potential for political attention, but there are far fewer families now untouched by higher education and there is much greater understanding and support by employers for educated and highly-trained employees. CVCP needs to harness the support of schools, employers, and parliamentarians in delivering the messages about the inestimable national value of properly funded, high quality universities. The good working relationship between the CVCP and the Committee of University Chairmen is a model that needs to be extended to groups outside the universities.

Second, the CVCP must be vigilant and disciplined about managing its own diversity. In particular it must guard against a proliferation of special interest groups. Of course it must be alert and responsive to issues affecting groups of members. But effectiveness will quickly be lost if the system appears to be speaking with many voices.

Finally, while the CVCP talks of universities, ministers and funding, councils talk of higher education. Is it too much to hope that CVCP and the Standing Conference of Principals become a single entity over the next few years?

Tom Burgner was secretary of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals from 1989 until this year.

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