Vision of a healthy future

March 17, 1995

Gareth Roberts, the chairman-elect of the CVCP, sets out his agenda to Huw Richards.

The Committee for Vision, Clout and Partnership". Well, perhaps not. But in conjuring up a new version of those familiar initials - and taking the risk that campus wits will devise less flattering versions - Gareth Roberts provides something of a foretaste of his agenda as incoming chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals.

Professor Roberts, vice chancellor of Sheffield University since 1991, is not by nature a reticent man. But his current situation as chairman-elect - he succeeds Ken Edwards of Leicester University in August - imposes a degree of discretion.

Even so, several priorities are clear. Not least is continuing the shift away from the gentleman's club style implicit in that cumbersome name. "The CVCP should be a powerful lobbying body with clout and recognition beyond the immediate boundaries of higher education. Ken Edwards has started that change, but it needs to go a great deal further," says Professor Roberts.

On one level the opportunity is greater than it has ever been. The old gents' club was handicapped as much by the binary line as by its own lack of ambition. Now it can claim to speak for most of higher education - or at least for its management. But with potential clout has come corresponding growth in potential division, with a greater diversity of institutions to be represented, and a proliferation of divisive issues such as research selectivity.

If Professor Roberts is to have the clout he seeks, he will have to take the sector with him. Like his predecessors, he will have to emphasise issues which unite rather than divide. He sees funding as the most fundamental of these. "We need to campaign to protect the unit of resource for both teaching and research," he says.

And he believes that the debate over the means of funding should not be divisive. "I believe there is a consensus that students should make some contribution. The issue now is when and how they should make that contribution, and making repayments through the National Insurance system strikes me as a generally acceptable system."

Having taken the sector with him, he needs to persuade the outside world that higher education has a voice worth hearing. Its apparent friendlessness under Government onslaught in the 1980s is a reminder of the costs of neglecting this task. He says: "We need to be extending our contacts in Government so that, as well as the Department for Education, departments such as health, defence and environment are aware of the importance of higher education to their areas of responsibility. At the same time we want to extend links outside Government, with business, local authorities and other agencies."

A good start was made in these terms by the Goddard report, detailing the extent of the sector's involvement in local and regional communities.

"I would like to see a similar report on our contribution to health. Around half of the operations in this country are performed in university hospitals, while a third of higher education's income is health-related. Do people realise how important universities are to health care ?"

He also believes that vice chancellors themselves may have a role to play in raising the sector's profile. "You have 104 highly intelligent people, many leading experts in their own academic fields. There is hardly a policy issue on which you could not find two or three to provide specialised advice or guidance to those responsible."

Within higher education he should have little difficulty getting his members to agree on the need for a single quality body - looking towards a mix of self-assessment, audit, subject reviews and visits.

"Ninety per cent of the benefit has come from the visits," he says. The Higher Education Funding Council for England may be less enamoured of this vision, but his HEFCE counterpart-to-be, Brian Fender, can expect to see his report on staff development dusted off.

"When I was in industry (as director of research at Thorn EMI) the rule was that 10 per cent of turnover should be devoted to staff development. Universities should be looking to do the same," says Professor Roberts, pointing to the enrolment of Sheffield staff on MEd programmes. "Teaching skills are enhanced, and the qualification at the end of the programme provides an incentive," he says.

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