THE vice-chancellor of the University of London has demanded the resignation of Diana Warwick, the universities' chief, because she has been appointed a working peer taking the Labour whip.
Graham Zellick, the London vice-chancellor, a leading academic and lawyer, says the appointment of Ms Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, undermines the independence of the UK universities.
He told The TES: "There is the issue of the independence of the CVCP. There is also the question of how much time she would be able to give to her job for us. And, importantly, there would always be doubts about how vigorously she could press the CVCP case with ministers. It has to be wrong that the chief executive of the CVCP is involved in active party politics."
Professor Zellick said that every head of college in the University of London, bar one, supported him. He had also had support from the universities of Oxford, Birmingham, Kent, Buckingham, Ulster, Teesside, East London and many others.
He wrote to Martin Harris, the chair of the CVCP, saying that the decision to back Ms Warwick "so seriously compromises the CVCP and sets so unfortunate a precedent that I cannot acquiesce in it. My discussions with the heads of colleges in this university and with a number of other vice-chancellors lead me to believe that there is at least a significant minority of CVCP members who no longer have confidence in our chief executive's ability to do the job required of her."
Professor Zellick has resigned from all his key positions on the CVCP, and has said he will take no part in any further meetings. He said: "I think there may also be a problem, given the CVCP is a registered charity, with continuing to pay a full salary to the chief executive even though she will be substantially engaged in political activities. Unless there is some adjustment to her salary, I feel there is a matter to be referred to the Charity Commissioners.
"It cannot be right that public funds from universities should be deployed to this end."
But Professor Harris strongly defended Ms Warwick. "I do not believe that she would be any the less an advocate of the CVCP as a result of this appointment. I am confident she would be able to maintain the duties of the chief executive both inside and outside the Lords."
Crucially, he said: "I am certain that she will not be expected, or required, to follow any whip in the Lords that is against the interests of the CVCP."
The point is significant as there is currently a Private Member's Bill in the Lords on lecturers' funding, which the Government is expected to oppose.
Professor Harris said Ms Warwick was supported by the executive and the council of the CVCP. He added that she had resigned from her membership of the Neill committee (formerly Nolan) on standards in public life, the Employment Appeals Tribunal, and chair of Voluntary Service Overseas, in order not to be over-committed. "I believe she will have the time to do the job, and the situation will be reviewed in time," said Professor Harris.
In similar circumstances, people in high-profile jobs have resigned them when elevated to the peerage. The best example is Elizabeth Symons who, when elevated, stepped down as head of the First Division, the union for civil servants.