Posted tagged ‘1994 Group’

Re-thinking group mission

December 3, 2013

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 AllianceMillion+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.

The elitism of a new mission?

March 13, 2012

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.

Tuition fees in England and support for access

July 13, 2011

In the aftermath of the details released yesterday by the Office for Fair Access (Offa) on tuition fees and access programmes in England, the 1994 Group of universities issued the following comment:

‘The 1994 Group of leading universities has today pledged to balance investments in widening participation with the need to uphold and enhance high quality student experiences. The Group’s commitment comes on the day that the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) reveals that 1994 Group universities will, on average, spend 26.2% of tuition fee income above £6000 on measures to widen participation in 2012, rising to 28.4% in 2015.’

Where a university is charging £9,000 (as is planned by all but one of the 1994 Group), 28.4 per cent of the fee income above £6,000 will be £852. This in turn will represent just under 9.5 per cent of the total fee income. When the remaining state support for teaching is added, that percentage will reduce further.

While it is obviously highly laudable that institutions are focusing on access initiatives, and that they are being encouraged by Offa to be more ambitious in that respect, it has to be said that contrary to what is suggested in the 1994 Group statement, 9.5 per cent of fee income is not an impressive investment in access, and will not necessarily lead to a statistically significant change in opportunities for the disadvantaged.

It would of course be unfair to criticise the 1994 Group, who are working constructively with what they have been given; but there is still much more work to be done on what would constitute a reasonable investment in access in a system where, increasingly, higher education participation is fee-based. But the investment that universities will need to make in such a setting will probably need to be closer to 20 per cent of fee income than 9.5 per cent.

Going clubbing

May 4, 2011

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.