The elitism of a new mission?

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.

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13 Comments on “The elitism of a new mission?”

  1. Vince Says:

    In fairness it does say United Kingdom. You can’t complain too much if it does what it says on the tin.
    Since they are mirroring the Ivy League and the Public Ivies, places hardly noted for the E pluribus unum democratic ideals. One cannot help but think that clean cut old fashioned class cleavage is at least honest.

  2. mjp6034 Says:

    This is probably as much to do with the ego of the Vice-Chancellor as anything else. Obviously students do choose universities based on their perceived social status, but Russell Group membership is not something which I think all but the most savvy students can parse into their calculations. Nor I think is it something which potential partners to universities (industry and research) can necessarily make sense of. Russell Group membership is not linked to teaching or research funding (other mechanisms exist for that), and I don’t think that the staff at universities care much about the badge. Therefore it must be driven by the ego of the university senior management I think.

  3. Steve Button Says:

    I agree with poster. I do not think that this move from one lobby group to another more exclusive one has anything to do with enhancing ‘intellectual excellence’. They presumably feel that their vested interests are best served by moving to another pressure group.

  4. Eddie Says:

    I was expecting this article and said to a few friends that this VC who has very little knowledge about English universities would jump up and down adding his views which not many would notice any way. Being in a post-92 with few recognise outside Scotland but perhaps do in Chennai among the students who fail to get into universities in Chennai!

    • Well then Eddie, all I can say is thank you for giving this little known VC’s views wider circulation 🙂

      • Eddie Says:

        Except me, very few will be reading this article from my England patch as the postings in the past demonstrate. I knew this article would appear, which is not a surprise in itself. My friends did not care. Hence the circulation is very limited to 1 person indeed. It might resonate in SNP quarters though!

  5. Fred Says:

    Ferdinand I am afraid there is a chance you (we) are missing a point: why this happened? For the badge? Maybe. But maybe they see something comming or having other (inside?) info. It is not secret that Russell group universities are preparing their selfs for a major hit in the next REF. Maybe after this they will ask research funding to be directed to them only?

  6. The comments so far raise, if not always intentionally, the question of why universities in the UK decide to join a club at all. I don’t think anyone seriously believes that the clubs were created with the purpose of attracting students; though in some circles mum and dad will be pleased if they can casually mention that wee Hamish is at a Russell group uni, most students neither know nor care. But university staff do care, and being in the Russell group can help attract certain types of job applicant with particular aspirations.

    For the VCs, the most obvious reason is prestige, though of course the fact that it is obvious doesn’t make it most important. Prestige is a positional good and only applies to the clubs. There can only be one ‘top club’ in the UK, which is the Russell group. Those who do not belong will say that its members are outrageous elitists who are only ‘top’ by their own definition. But actually, yes it’s true, the 1994 group comprises universities that don’t meet the rules for joining the Russell group, and would promptly apply if and when they do meet the criteria.

    The second main reason for joining, ie lobbying, was what inspired the Russell group in the first place. Other groups were formed because VCs were worried that their type of uni might miss out because the Russell group was bending the ear of ministers and civil servants. So Million Plus lobbies on behalf of one part of the sector, as do the other groups.

    Third, these alliances are also about networking and benchmarking. The VCs and other senior managers may spend part of their time congratulating themselves on how jolly splendid they are, but they are also sharing ideas, information and practices. I used to work at one Russell uni where a senior manager used to talk explicitly about negative benchmarks (Durham, amusingly, was one) that ‘we do not want to be compared with’.

    And much as I love listening to Brits bickering, we shouldn’t be too parochial about this. Instead of fussing about England and Scotland, remember that there are also international alliances. These can be particularly important at the European level, where they can not only influence policy but also provide a platform for funding applications for research and so on. Those who can’t see any further than the candyfloss will just assume that the VCs are off junketing, but again these alliances perform a number of functions apart from ego-stroking.

  7. The curiosity is the brand strategy difficulty that both institutions and clubs get themselves into, in a general sense–so this is just a particular example. When everyone presents themselves as champions of the exact same value, the more meaningful brand differentiation is rather obviously achieved by the company you keep. But drill down and you’ll find that each member also has more or less the same language for describing their mission, because all universities elbowing for a seat at the top table use the same narrow vocabulary to describe what they do, and they’re using this claimed similarity to cluster with others of the same aspiration.

    It’s an open field for institutions who really want to try something different, so the interesting question is: why do so few have a go at this? When I was a kid, we were taught the well-known game in which all questions and answers have to avoid particular words, and the winner was the one who could go the longest without saying “Yes, No, Black, White, Grey”. Universities should try it with “Excellence, Outstanding, Quality, Distinctive and Unrivalled.”

    Who would be left?

  8. J R Berg Says:

    If it’s not a secret that the Russells are preparing for an REF disappointment why would York et al jump ship? I can’t see the government changing how it dishes out research funding changing in any significant way. Also, just out of curiosity, where are you getting your REF info? Thanks.

    • Fred Says:

      They (Russell) are preparing for an EXTREMELY strong performance. The dissapointment will be for everyone else. Probably York et al think it’s good time to join the club because of that. I maybe wrong but after REF they will ask research funding to be directed to ….top 24 institutions only.
      REF info: just discussion with fellow academics and knowing some of the Russell group universities requirements for their staff submissions.
      @Anna, thanks for the comment.

      • J R Berg Says:

        Thanks Fred. I misread your first post and assumed you were saying that they were preparing for a major REF setback, which of course surprised me. With that sorted, it makes perfect sense for York et all to join.

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