Defending universities' independence from Whitehall will be a key priority for the next chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, vice-chancellors argued this week, following the surprise announcement that Sir Howard is leaving the post next summer, writes Paul Hill.
Last week's news that Sir Howard is to become vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England has prompted fevered speculation over who will replace him in one of the most powerful jobs in the sector.
Vice-chancellors approached by The Times Higher put forward a "dream shortlist" of possible candidates: Sir David Watson, the former vice-chancellor at Brighton, Sir Colin Campbell of Nottingham, David Eastwood at the University of East Anglia, Peter Scott at Kingston and Glynis Breakwell at Bath.
None of those suggested was willing to comment.
One vice-chancellor said: "It isn't going to be a very long list of candidates. Say you want sector experience, say you want someone who has done something nationally and someone who has the confidence of the sector.
But it must be someone who understands Whitehall, not someone absorbed and taken over by it."
Sir Martin Harris, the head of the Office for Fair Access, was suggested by some vice-chancellors, but it is understood that he is unlikely to be a candidate.
Sir Howard's decision to move came as a surprise to many university heads - many of whom thought he had extended his initial contract.
The council faces questions about its future funding role with the introduction of top-up fees in 2006, while preparations for the 2008 research assessment exercise are just gathering momentum, with major funding decisions due in 2007.
UWE shares the same campus as the funding council in Bristol. And Sheila Newby, Sir Howard's wife, is assistant vice-chancellor at UWE.
In an official statement, Sir Howard said: "UWE is well placed to be a distinctive new kind of university, one that constantly strives for excellence and serves a wider community."
Sir Howard will become the first funding council chief to leave for a new university and his appointment will take effect in 2006 following the retirement of Alfred Morris.