One of the features, over the past decade or more, of the British university system has been the so-called ‘mission groups’. These have included the Russell Group, the 1994 Group, the University Alliance, Million+, Guild HE. All in all, these groups do not have a major presence in Scotland, though some Scottish universities are members of one or the other of them. However, mostly the mission groups are so totally focused on England that any Scottish membership is not much affected. In Ireland, leaving aside for a moment the membership by University College Dublin of the international group Universitas 21, mission groups have not been a feature. In Northern Ireland Queen’s University Belfast was allowed to join the Russell Group a few years ago, though its performance particularly in research might have raised questions about its suitability for inclusion in that particular collection.
Be all that as it may, the scene may be experiencing some significant change, even in England. In recent years some of the members of the 1994 Group, which had set itself up as an umbrella group for small research-intensive universities, jumped ship and joined the Russell Group, which is the self-declared representative of ‘leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector.’ Increasingly asset stripped by its larger rival grouping, the 1994 Group has now decided to close shop.
This could be seen as a victory for the Russell Group. But the latter has now become so large and diverse that some are wondering whether it will start developing smaller sub-groups and eventually break up. But maybe a more fundamental question should be asked: should such groups exist at all? In a system that should celebrate diversity and, where appropriate, competition, mission groups sometimes look like defensive cartels that seek special advantages for their members. Of course universities should collaborate, but whether such collaboration is better or more appropriate through exclusive clubs is open to question.
Thankfully, my university (Robert Gordon University) is not affiliated to any mission group. And that’s how it will stay. In this way we will drive forward with purpose and ambition; and any university is welcome to work with us.