A wave of resignations could hit the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, which has been "split from top to bottom" over chief executive Diana Warwick's peerage, it emerged this week.
Vice-chancellors say Ms (now Lady) Warwick must resign as chief executive to avoid a conflict of interest now that she has become a working Labour peer. They warn that failure to do so could spark further resignations in the wake of last week's decision by London University vice-chancellor Graham Zellick to quit.
Diana Green, vice-chancellor at Sheffield Hallam, said: "I believe Diana's position is untenable. Leaving the principle to one side, the fact is the issue has split the CVCP from top to bottom. The best thing Diana could do is I resign."
Having taken the Labour whip, Ms Warwick must be loyal to the government. Vice-chancellors fear that if universities were in dispute with government over legislation, she would be obliged, assuming no special dispensation to abstain, to vote with the government - even to the universities' detriment.
Professor Zellick said: "The CVCP must be scrupulously non-party political. Diana will be taking the Labour Party whip and has to be loyal to the government. It could disable the CVCP as a lobbying organisation."
Maxwell Irvine, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, said: "I am not comfortable with the situation. If I felt that the CVCP was not representing the interests of universities in the strongest way then what would be the point of being a member?" Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, said:
"I do my fighting from the inside, but things are going to become very difficult, to the point of becoming impossible, if this situation is not resolved. One vice-chancellor resigning is too many."
Charity commissioners have also warned that if Ms Warwick, a CVCP trustee, remains in post the committee would have to be careful not to breach laws governing charitable status. These state that a charity exists to pursue its charitable objectives. There is nothing to prevent a politician holding a senior post in a charity.
Vice-chancellors feel CVCP chiefs have railroaded the issue. CVCP chairman Martin Harris recommended that Ms Warwick stay on at the same time as her peerage was announced. Last Friday the CVCP council endorsed Professor Harris's recommendation with only one dissenting vote.
Professor Harris, who has discussed the matter with ministers, sought to reassure members and play down claims of a split. He told The THES: "I am certain Diana will not be required to vote against CVCP policy in the Lords. A number of people are anxious, but I believe the numbers of people who think they should do as Graham (Zellick) has done is very, very small. The overwhelming majority are content, although not necessarily happy, with the council decision."
Ms Warwick will remain full-time as chief executive on the same salary, despite her new duties as a working peer. She is to rebalance her workload by giving up her work for the Employment Appeal Tribunal and the Neill (formerly Nolan) committee on standards in public life.
Meghnad Desai, professor of economics at the London School of Economics and a Labour peer, does not believe conflict of interest will arise as long as Ms Warwick declares her interest when speaking in any debate related to higher education, or even education.
Diana Warwick declined to comment.
Soapbox, page 18
FIVE-POINT REFORM FOR ADMISSIONS
Vice-chancellors have proposed a five-point reform to make admissions fairer for students and universities.
Martin Harris, chairman of the CVCP, said he was looking for support from schools and colleges for the proposals, which form part of a consultation by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in the autumn.
The CVCP proposes:
* A later closing date for applications, perhaps February
* Using new AS grades to enhance the accuracy of predicted A level grades
* Greater transparency of entry criteria
* "Blind" decision-making, in whichuniversities could not see where else a student had applied
* Abolition of conditional offers.
Professor Harris believes the proposals, particularly the later closing date and predicted A-level results, will aid progress towards a post-qualifications admissions system, allowing students to apply after receiving their results. This would make it easier for universities to plan intakes and reduce reliance on the clearing process.
The changes could be brought into effect from 2003, he said.
UCAS is also consulting with FE colleges, schools and local authorities on reforming the admissions process.