Mrs Thatcher stopped all that. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors (CVCP), effective enough in lobbying on specific pieces of legislation, particularly in the House of Lords, struggled to make headway on big questions to do with fees and funds when ministers had to be squared and public opinion mobilised. Vice-chancellors developed a plangent line in whingeing but proved unable to co-ordinate a political assault.
A year ago they appeared to be striking out on a new course. Diana Warwick's appointment as the CVCP's new chief executive promised the creation of a body that could mix it with ministers. Neither an academic nor a clubman, her background in white-collar trade unionism seemed to offer vice-chancellors the political (with a small p) spirit they sought.
Now 51, long married but childless, she is a "public affairs professional", swimming easily in the turbid waters around Westminster, the political parties and Whitehall. Formerly head of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a small Foreign Office-supported initiative to help establish good political practice in eastern Europe, she is a member of Lord Nolan's Committee on Standards in Public Life and, as such, is a paid-up member of the Great and Good. (Her political sympathies are probably with Tony Blair and new Labour, but past history and Labour's rhetorical commitment to boost primary and secondary rather than higher education will mean the CVCP will have as uphill a struggle with a new government in arguing for keeping the "unit of resource" - the amount spent on each student - constant. )
All in all, she arrived at the CVCP with sterling credentials and a stated wish to make the CVCP "a force to be reckoned with". The past 12 months have certainly been tumultuous, with the creation of Sir Ron Dearing's great inquiry into the future of university funding and constant debate about new ways of paying for students. Has the CVCP been more effective?
Ms Warwick, according to one acute observer of the organisation, remains "the most astute politician of the lot". Under her it has been using harder language and playing politics more openly. During the past month the universities have issued the Government with an ultimatum: either it produces more money for them in the forthcoming autumn budget, especially for their equipment and capital needs, or else next year at least some of them will impose "top-up" fees on their students. Some of the figures bandied around - ranging from an immediate pounds 300 surcharge to a full pounds 20,000 over three years' extra cost - make for exciting reading in the months running up to a general election.
It's high risk. The legal position of charging extra fees on students already accepted is unclear - the universities only realised that after the threat was issued. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has commissioned lawyers to investigate. Meanwhile, the universities are disunited. The London School of Economics and University College, London, have all but committed themselves to some kind of extra payment. Would enough universities play ball to frighten the Government in this fraught pre-election period?
Ms Warwick answers with a politician's emollience. It is difficult to predict what the vice-chancellors will do when they meet after the Budget. "I don't want us to be in a position to force a knee-jerk reaction from the Government but I think we have done a very good job in convincing them that while universities are enthusiastic about attracting private capital it can't work in the way the Government hoped it might.
"There is a huge tension in the system about how to maintain the quality of international and national excellence while funds are going down. I think the business of top-up fees is a cry of despair." But since when do cries from the heart sway stony-hearted Treasury officials?
In her own backyard, at the CVCP's headquarters in Bloomsbury, she has certainly been an agent of change. A number of long-serving and loyal CVCP staffers have gone - the habitual politeness of the university world concealing sharp backbiting. The CVCP's finances have been stretched by a planned move to new premises. Ms Warwick says her brief was to shake the place up and to "ensure the team was not just a collection of experts".
But few decisions are Ms Warwick's alone. She can only be as effective as the CVCP's rotating chairman, currently Professor Gareth Roberts of Sheffield. Together they lead an organisation with 104 idiosyncratic members from institutions as diverse as the ivy-clad University of Durham and Liverpool John Moores University. Such an outfit will always find unity a struggle - regardless of the qualities of its top official.
Diana Warwick says they have managed to stay together, and keep the problems of university funding at the top of the agenda. "I have been very encouraged by the way universities have recognised the importance of developing their collective voice. If we do break down into different groupings, we simply cancel each other out."
She claims there has been impressive unity on how to monitor and maintain academic quality in the universities. The CVCP is now much more outwardly focused, working on alliances and partnerships between higher education and other institutions. This ties in with the message she is keen to give the Government - about the number of jobs the universities create, and the size of the overseas earnings they generate.
But even before the Budget forces the universities' hand Ms Warwick must handle a familiar problem. Her former comrades at the Association of University Teachers (she was general secretary) want money. Universities have offered a pay rise of 1.5 per cent - a figure designed to impress the Government for its parsimony. In response, the AUT is organising a strike ballot. What if the Government and lecturers realise that many university finance officers have prudently allowed between 2.5 and 3 per cent for the eventual settlement?
The answer is that universities would, as before, break ranks. Ms Warwick would be left trying to keep a fissiparous bunch together in the most fraught political circumstances.
Born 16 July 1945 in Yorkshire. Educated at Bedford College, London. Joined staff of the National Union of Teachers, becoming assistant secretary of the Civil and Public Services Association in 1972. General secretary of the Association of University Teachers from 1983 to 1992. Member of the General Council of the TUC 1989-92. Chief executive of Westminster Foundation for Democracy until 1995. Member of the board of the British Council and the Employment Appeal Tribunal. Now chief executive of the CVCP.Reuse content