What's in a name?

December 1, 2000

The CVCP has been rebranded but the same misguided policies remain, says Peter Knight.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom is no more. Prompted by an external survey showing that the CVCP is seen as middle-aged, male-dominated and a rather ineffectual club for vice-chancellors, the marketing men have re-badged it "Universities UK". Our new name might help to overcome the old image, but for the fact that the perceptions are accurate and the real problem is not image but policy.

To judge the effectiveness of the CVCP as a "trade body", it is important to remember that it has had a clear policy since before the last election: because more money for universities was out, the only possible salvation was to support the Dearing committee in the hope that its recommendations would be adopted by whoever won the 1997 general election.

Post-election and Dearing, the CVCP entered into a Faustian bargain with Labour - the CVCP would not whinge if the government implemented Dearing. However, the government immediately implemented its own version of Dearing on the crucial issue of student support and "cherry picked" the recommendations so there was no reduction in the burden of academic assessment. And there was the deafening sound of reverse gear at any suggestion that the government might appoint the chair of a committee to review pay and conditions.

But the CVCP stuck to the party line that there was nothing to be gained by having a row with a newly elected government. There was one early success - money for research in the sciences, engineering and medical research. Progress on student support has been more problematic. While the overall number of students seems stable, key groups have been deterred by the introduction of fees and the abolition of the maintenance grant. But the CVCP has remained loyal to the government line that everything is all right.

The first real row occurred over the decision on tuition fees. The CVCP made it clear it backed Dearing.

Every new initiative from the Department for Education and Employment is endorsed by the CVCP. The mutual admiration would be acceptable if the situation in higher education was satisfactory, but it is not. Desperate levels of debt are grinding down students, for the first time in years there could be industrial unrest over pay and there is a deadening bureaucratic burden on universities and staff - from the collection of more and more spurious statistics to intrusive initiatives such as the "Transparency Review" and endless demands from the Quality Assurance Agency that intrude on academic freedom and encourage conformity. Even the Higher Education Funding Council for England is concerned. It recently put the "accountability burden" at £250 million - a phenomenal sum for often futile and counterproductive activity. Schools successfully campaigned against similar bureaucracy. But from the CVCP, silence.

The CVCP's greatest mistake is not criticising the government over student debt. Arrangements for student support, other than in Scotland, are inadequate and no amount of special initiatives or jam-jar funding will help. Many students are in debt and unable to pay fees and rent. A few weeks ago, the CVCP complacently announced that students still owed £21 million to their universities in fees. This was within government estimates, it suggested, and so not alarming. But if the average debt is, say, £500, that means 42,000 students are affected. That is unacceptable.

This government wants to show it is "listening". But it can listen only if bodies such as the CVCP tell it the bad news as well as the good. Dearing is ancient history. There must be a new policy framework within which we can all operate. The "strapline" of the CVCP was "the voice of the UK universities". Now we have become "Universities UK", that voice has got to be louder than the whimper that it has been in the past three years, or we have wasted your money on the new stationery.

Peter Knight is vice-chancellor of the University of Central England.

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