During my ten years as head of an Irish university, one of the things I appreciated most was that there were no university groups or associations in Ireland apart from the Irish Universities Association (of which all are members). Well, almost no such groups: University College Dublin (UCD) is a member of the international group Universitas 21, and of course UCD and Trinity College Dublin formed the ‘Innovation Alliance‘. But certainly until the latter alliance was formed in 2009, when the university presidents met we never had to be wary of the other associations of which one or the other might be part.
That makes Irish higher education somewhat unique. In Britain you cannot move for university groupings: the Russell Group, the 1994 Group, the University Alliance, Million+, Guild HE. Most of these do not have a major presence in Scotland, though some Scottish universities are members of one or the other of these. However, mostly these groups are so totally focused on England that any Scottish membership is not much affected. RGU, thankfully, is not a member of any of them.
The key objective of all of these groupings is, one must imagine, to lobby government and its agencies with a view to securing special benefits for their members. In some cases they also aim to provide a badge of special status, particularly when the group sets out exclusive membership conditions. Here the intention is to brand members as belonging to a special elite. Although most of these groups won’t see it that way, they can have the appearance of a cartel, and occasionally I suspect they may have price-fixing on their minds.
Occasionally it goes wrong for some members. In the United States the Association of American Universities, which describes itself as consisting of the ‘pre-eminent private and public research universities’ of the US and Canada, has just expelled one of its members, while a second member university left the association before they were pushed. In both cases their membership came to an end because, according to the association’s method of calculating research performance, the two institutions had been unable to maintain the required results.
Of course universities must be free to form and join whatever associations they fancy. Equally it is true that while all universities share some major interests and goals, there will be a wide diversity of mission and strategy. Surely it must be good to form groups around these different missions, so that members can share information and sustain each other? The problem is that the group objectives can quickly seem more important to members than those of the wider higher education system. As a result trust and confidence can be hard to maintain.
Unfortunately I fear that these groups are here to stay. So now, all I hope is that their activities do not compromise the overall levels of collaboration or the capacity of the sector as a whole to make a united case to government and the public. That is needed more urgently than any agenda that might be pursued by selected (and selective) groups.