DESPERATE attempts by university leaders to forge post-Dearing unity failed this week because of fears that money from student fees may not be pumped back into higher education.
Splits emerged between vice chancellors over whether they should be seen to support the principle of charging students, whatever happens to the extra cash.
Speaking at the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals' annual conference in Strathclyde this week, education minister Tessa Blackstone said an announcement on future funding for higher education would be made in the next fortnight - in time for the new academic year.
She also appeared to put the lid on plans for expansion, saying priority should be given to quality and infrastructure problems. "Long after the heat and dust of the debate on funding has subsided, the issue of standards will still be at the heart of higher education," she said.
Martin Harris, chairman of the CVCP, said: "We are looking for a commitment that money raised by the introduction of a student contribution to tuition fees will be reinvested into higher education as additional funding."
It is still not clear what action vice chancellors will take should no such commitment be made as The THES went to press.
CVCP officials called for vice chancellors to "strongly endorse" government proposals on fees. They stated that fee payments by students were "fair" because of clear evidence that graduates earned more.
But many vice chancellors are unwilling to commit themselves this far until they know how the proposals will solve the funding crisis. They fear they will have extra responsibilities over standards, while having to collect fees and face more demanding students without the cash to do it.
New universities in the CVCP have already banded together in the Coalition of Modern Universities, formed the week the Dearing report came out. Other factions are also fighting their corner. Some research institutions want the freedom to charge top-up fees, in addition to the Pounds 1,000 nationally.
Brian Roper, vice chancellor of the University of North London and a founding member of the coalition, warned: "The CMU is a salutary lesson which the CVCP will have to take into account. It will be a tribute to its leadership if it can hold us together if the funding outcome is not what we want by the New Year. The question of secession may well follow."
* Baroness Blackstone has again warned universities against charging top-up fees. In a statement issued last week she said that the Government "will consider the need for powers to prevent top-up fees being charged". She also implied the Government expects universities to collect undergraduate tuition fees, pointing out that they perform this task for part-time and postgraduate students as well as for those from overseas.