Going clubbing

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.

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6 Comments on “Going clubbing”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    Very lucid post, Ferdinand, the crux of the argument is very effectively presented at the end: *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.*
    While I also believe that a ‘united case’ is required I remain just skeptic that it can be achieved. The old Roman maxim comes to mind ‘Divide et Impera’ (or Divide and Rule in its British empire incarnation). This reminds me.. I was a member of staff at an institution which joined the Russell Group about ten years ago, I vividly remember the Head of School’s excitement when he announced the great news, had never seen him smiling so much before:)

  2. jfryar Says:

    Like everything in the UK education system, the groupings seem to be used as yet another way of quantifying the ‘goodness’ of a university. They confer a degree of prestige – with Oxford and Cambridge in the Russell grouping, sometimes you get the impression that the other universities are like the hangers-on who hope that association with the cool kids will big up their own reputations.

    I say that because if you look at Manchester, Cardiff and Oxford universities, they have vastly different student backgrounds. They have vastly different resources available to them. I also suspect that the issues affecting Southampton (Russell group) are not dissimilar to Surrey (1994 group). So I don’t get it. Either every university lobbies individually or they all lobby together. This notion of splitting up universities into bizzare groups, with each group lobbying for individual members, seems daft.

  3. I’ve written in the past about the challenges of representation over at Wonkhe:


    Universities UK exists with the aim to represent united views, but that is difficult to do so when representation becomes more localised within mission groups. Essentially, representation becomes more localised until it rests with a single person.

    I agree that the more personal those issues become (i.e. the more localised the issues under discussion), the more important they seem compared to issues for the wider system.

    We shouldn’t give up on creating as united a voice as possible, but we do need to be realistic: it cannot be perfect; the voices regularly change; general goals will always grow more specific as they localise (as with mission groups).

    Attempting to represent at such a high level is incredibly important, even if it’s a practically impossible task. In some ways, the impossibility is what makes the task worthwhile. If nothing else, it will stop complacency from creeping in.

  4. BrendanH Says:

    It reminds me of an anecdote I was told about the first head of the Universities Funding Council, who announced that he had a very clear understanding that his role was “to protect the interests of the universities… both of them”.

  5. Vincent Says:

    Why is Durham not in Russell

    • Vincent, Durham is in the 1994 Group, and in some ways it is as exclusive as the Russell Group – for example, it also contains St Andrews, one of the top ranking UK universities (and the meeting place of you-know-who and herself).

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