Universities UK – who does it represent and what does it do?

Professor GR Evans looks at the history of an organisation that has rarely been out of the news in recent weeks – and asks what powers it really has


Universities UK has been in the news recently during the upset caused by the proposals to make major changes to the USS pension scheme. It has not had a good press.

What is it and what does it do? Essentially it is just a club. Its members are the ‘executive heads’ of ‘universities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland’, The vast majority of these institutions are those in receipt of direct public funding but it admits alternative providers, for example Regent’s University London.

It has a long history. It began over a century ago in ad hoc meetings of vice-chancellors who had discovered common cause in some current controversy. By 1918 it had begun to work as a body informally representing all of the then twenty-two universities and colleges. In 1930 it took the precaution of trying to ensure that each university had given its vice-chancellor a mandate to represent its interests in a process of ‘mutual consultation’.

This question of the extent to which vice-chancellors may now commit their universities has been sharply in focus during the current USS pensions dispute. The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is a corporate trustee with a Board of Directors made up of four appointed by UUK (typically vice-chancellors) and three representatives of the University and College trade union (UCU), plus five ‘independent’ members, appointed by the Board itself. For the purposes of negotiation if change to the scheme is called for by the trustee, there is a Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC). This is made up of an equal number of UUK and UCU members with a chair appointed by the JNC and who has the casting vote where opinion is divided.

Can UUK force its members to abide by its decisions?

In the present dispute this has dug a trench between the ‘employers’, who are likely to resist having to pay a larger employer contribution and the ‘employees’ who are angry at the suggestion that their defined benefit pension rights should disappear. Vice-chancellors, through UUK, collectively took a view which would benefit the employers. Members of the scheme in their universities went on strike to protect the benefits of employees and objected fiercely to the idea that their vice-chancellors had a right to commit their universities to a course of action solely as ‘employers’. Several vice-chancellors broke ranks and said they did not endorse the position of UUK. There remains a question in these circumstances by what mechanism UUK can have a position binding its member vice-chancellors and how, even if it can, that can in its turn bind their universities.

On behalf of its members, the Committee of Vice-chancellors and Principals (CVCP) lobbied successive governments throughout the twentieth century. The CVCP had a significant influence on the shaping of higher education policy. For example, it commissioned the Jarratt Report (1985), which helped to prompt the changes which have encouraged universities to regard themselves as businesses. In 1990 the CVCP set up the precursor of the Quality Assurance Agency, the Academic Audit Unit. That reported to the CVCP not to Government.

The CVCP was hugely enlarged after 1992 when the former polytechnics became universities and their new vice-chancellors joined it. In its evidence to the Dearing Committee, which reported in 1997, it tried to set the long term goal for the UK of the creation of a new education and training framework encompassing all post-16 further and higher level learning and qualifications.

CVCP was ‘rebranded’ as Universities UK (UUK) in December 2000. It has remained a single UK body despite the devolution of higher education that leaves the present radical changes in England (replacing HEFCE with the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation) separate from what is happening elsewhere in the UK.

Universities UK currently describes itself as:

“the voice of universities, helping to maintain the world-leading strength of the UK university sector and supporting our members to achieve their aims and objectives.”

It sees itself as achieving this by being a lobbying organisation:

“We help to shape the higher education policy agenda, engaging directly with policy makers and other stakeholders. We maintain strong and proactive relationships with government, the private sector, the professions and sector agencies.”

It operates from extensive offices in Woburn Square, which provide conference space.

Who is entitled to speak for a university?

However, this leaves unresolved the question how far a vice-chancellor is entitled to speak for a university without its authorisation. Publicly-funded universities (except Oxford and Cambridge) now have company-style governing bodies, usually called ‘councils’, which in the case of the post-1992 universities are the sole ‘members’ of the university. Their chairs are senior to the vice-chancellor as chief executive.

There is a Committee of University Chairs which ‘represents’ the chairs. The funding councils liaise with the CUC for certain purposes, rather than with Universities UK. The recent Higher Education Remuneration Code in response to the outcry about the size of some vice-chancellors’ salaries was CUC project, as was the creation of The Higher Education Code of Good Governance revised in 2014.

However the CUC, meeting a mere twice a year, lacks the resources to compete with the vice-chancellors’ organisation in any collective bid to ‘represent’ individual universities en bloc when a dispute arises.