Education: New kids swagger into the patricians' club

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The Independent Online
The old-style vice-chancellor was patrician in style, frequently of an eminent academic background, well connected and slightly other-worldly. But with the abolition of the distinction between universities and polytechnics, one of Britain's most elite clubs almost doubled its numbers overnight. Political amateurs are making way for managers with mission statements.

That eminent and conservative body, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, has changed substantially and for ever. No doubt some old vice-chancellors will find sharing their bed with former polytechnic directors - self-fashioned executives leading streamlined institutions dedicated to mass higher education - a little uncomfortable.

The newcomers have distinct characteristics and a certain street swagger. Christopher Price, of Leeds Metropolitan, and Leslie Wagner, of the University of North London, have both been Labour politicians; Peter Knight, of the University of Central England, was general secretary of the trade union Natfhe. There are two women: Anne Wright, of Sunderland University, and Baroness Perry (shortly to retire), of the University of the South Bank.

The heads of the former polytechnics are mostly younger. They even include among their number a Rod Stewart look-alike - Mike Fitzgerald, 41, of Thames Valley University, who sports a blown and highlighted hairdo around his ear-rings.

The Government has been adept at playing one sector off against the other. Will it now play one vice-chancellor off against another? Or will there be a convergence of ambition and more united lobbying, now they all have the same name and draw their funds from the same pot?

Elaine Williams talked to six vice-chancellors, three of the old and three of the new. They are all members of the CVCP Inner Council, and all first-class strategic planners for their own institutions. Their attitudes to research and teaching remain a deeply dividing factor. But all six are regarded as instigators of change, and their notable ambition and personal styles promise an eventful future in the reshaping of higher education.