Every Secretary of State since Sir Keith Joseph in 1985 has given the key address to the vice-chancellors at their annual residential retreat. One reason for the rejection was the impression made by John Patten, the former Secretary of State for Education, during his address last year. One vice-chancellor said: 'We could not tolerate his antics. He was patronising, off-hand and flippant. That kind of thing does not go down very well.' But a second reason is that the vice-chancellors prefer to spend the time discussing their own strategies, rather than reacting to those of the Government.
When Mrs Shephard replaced Mr Patten the vice-chancellors considered an invitation but decided against, although she will be a guest at the dinner. One source said: 'We felt that having the Secretary of State address us would distort our priorities. It gives an alternative focus to the conference. We felt the most valuable part of us coming together is our own internal communing.'
The three-day retreat takes place at the end of the month, at the University of Birmingham. Relations between the vice-chancellors and ministers have been fraught. The universities objected vociferously to changes affecting student unions and teacher training in the Education Bill. They are at loggerheads with the Government over the way the quality of universities is assessed. Vice-chancellors insist ministers have imposed upon them a cumbersome and inefficient system of marking departments.
Ministers, on the other hand, hint that quality has declined and want some new procedure to ensure the broad comparability of standards between universities. The Government is conducting its own internal review of higher education.