So what should we make of this? Four English universities that had until now been members of the ’1994 Group’ – which according to its website exists ‘to promote excellence in research and teaching. To enhance student and staff experience within our universities and to set the agenda for higher education’ (grammar and punctuation as on their website) – have moved their membership to the so-called ‘Russell Group’, which says it ‘represents 20 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’; except that it doesn’t, as it’s now 24 universities. If you need to know (and really, you don’t), the four are the universities of York, Durham, Exeter and Queen Mary (the name of a college of the University of London).
The Russell Group and the 1994 Group are both examples of what are usually described as ‘mission groups’. Therefore, they exist in order to bring together institutions sharing a particular and unique mission. But if this is all about mission, then the four institutions concerned are moving from a group with one particular mission to another with, you know, exactly the same mission, as far as the rest of us can make out. The Russell Group, having invited the transfer group, are really happy, while the 1994 people are bemused. And if this particular transaction creates the impression that 1994 Group membership is a waiting list for the Russell Group, then the 1994ers are in trouble.
Presumably what we are learning here is that the ‘mission’ groups in England are all about status, rather than about strategy or mission. Their role is to identify who are members of the elite, or at least of a group self-identifying as an elite. They do have some Scottish members, though thankfully this membership does not appear to matter much in practice north of the Border.
Of course in some ways all higher education institutions are about nurturing an elite – in this case an elite of thought, analysis, scholarship and learning. Education is about bringing out the best in people and ideas, for the benefit of society. Nor is there anything wrong with universities wanting to be the very best; intellectual competition is often good. But what we are getting is the culture of the club: the idea that your associations need to smell of exclusivity. And however much this is presented as intellectual excellence, it is going to be affected by thoughts of social elitism, even if that was never intended.
Of course universities need to collaborate and to find like-minded partners. But in the end, that is a different game. Finding a club, enticing though it may seem at times, is an ambition that will always place the ultimate mission of academic excellence in its real essence at risk. It should be pursued with a great deal of reluctance.