9th December 1994 at 00:00
As if we weren't shocked enough by Oxford dons driving each other to suicide, Carborundum has been getting intimations that all is not unalloyed sweetness and light in higher education.

It seems the universities are not attacking the Government over its new recruitment freeze because they are too busy taking potshots at each other, thanks to a cute reversal of the old phrase, divide and rule.

Readers will recall that a couple of years ago every polytechnic in the land was miraculously transformed into a fully-fledged university as the older establishments stood by and gritted their teeth. En route, the two enrolment systems were merged into the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. In the immortal words of one mole, the former supremos of both organisations were appointed joint chief executives and "left to fight it out like cats in a sack". Being gents, they didn't, but one subsequently left, leaving former poly man Tony Higgins in charge.

Even before this year's A-level results it became apparent to Mr H that the hastily cobbled-together UCAS system was less than ideal, and his bosses in the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals asked him to institute a review. This he did with enthusiasm, firing off questionnaires to schools, exam boards, universities and anyone else within range.

But it was at this point that the euphemistically-named older universities began to get chilly feet. Perhaps coincidentally, reports surfaced of a mysterious new conglomeration called the Russell Group, consisting of said older establishments.

"They were very opposed to the ideas coming out of the Higgins review because they thought it was biased in favour of the newer universities," explains a mole. "Feelings were running very high," adds another. Alarm-provoking suggestions including shifting the start of the university year to January and computer-controlled enrolment.

Shortly afterwards, the CVCP was bombarded with near-identical letters from its old-money members, with one subtext - stop Higgins. One round-robin version from Manchester - signed by 21 universities - mentioned "widespread concern about the direction and activities of UCAS and the lack of real consultation with institutions" before urging that any review should be personally handled by the CVCP.

"It is vital that it command the confidence of those institutions which deal with the bulk of applications. All options should be investigated, not just those set out in the UCAS letter," it says. Threateningly, it continues: "There was . . . strongly expressed concern that higher education institutions - on whom the financial responsibility for the maintenance of any admissions system depends - should reassess the role and activities of UCAS. The meeting commends this to UCAS for consideration as a matter of urgency."

Odd, that - the users provide half of the running costs.

The Higgins review, which failed to find a consensus, was quietly buried after publication and the CVCP is now busily putting together its own committee. And surprise, surprise, its 19 members are heavily biased towards university types, plus Tony Higgins.

Oh, and there are now likely to be two representatives from schools rather than the one originally planned.

So exactly what is the CVCP review supposed to be doing that the Higgins version did not? "Oh, it's very long-term," says a spokesman, airily. "It's looking into the next century." But not too seriously, one presumes.

Almost six months into her Mission to Charm as Education Secretary, Mrs Shephard is evolving some interesting new tactics.

Secondary school heads are still reeling from their latest encounter with the lady, which took place on her home territory, Sanctuary Buildings. The great and the good dutifully trooped into her office, crossed the deep-pile carpets, and sank cautiously into the chairs proffered by their host before reaching for their briefcases. And then watched in astonishment as the Blessed Gillian casually kicked off her ladylike court shoes and demurely put her feet up on the table.

"It was quite . . . unnerving," murmurs one, reaching for a stiffener.

Meanwhile, Mrs Shephard - newly named as Minister to Watch - appeared determined to live up to her new title at a recent Association for Colleges conference. When she was prevented by a three-line whip from leaving London to deliver her speech, the day was saved by sponsor British Telecom, which laid on a video-conferencing facility.

Initially, Mrs S was literally going to be the Minister to Watch, refusing to use the technology to answer questions. Then Sanctuary Buildings mandarins conceded that she would reply to three pre-vetted inquiries.

Feelings ran higher as the day progressed, because a veto had been put on said equipment being subsequently used to relay the evening's international footie match into the conference dinner. Unsurprisingly, attendance dwindled somewhat come the sweet course.

But we digress. A few super-eager principals were lurking back in the hall before the speech. Imagine their surprise to discover that not only was the screen already in action, but the camera at theLondon end was trained on a busy technician.

Addressing an invisible friend behind the camera, he peered into the lens, scratched his head and squinted. "Can you make sure that camera is straight?" he inquired anxiously. "We don't want to make the Secretary of State look small and fuzzy."

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