Posted tagged ‘Russell Group’

Disrupting institutional entitlement in higher education: the Teaching Excellence Framework

June 26, 2017

Let me first of all declare an interest. This post is going to be about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in the UK. My university, Robert Gordon University, entered, and was awarded a Gold rating. So you may conclude that this colours my judgement.

But let me first go back some ten years to a meeting I attended on university rankings. One speaker, representing a particular league table, argued that in devising a set of criteria and weightings for such a table you had to start from one assumption: that nobody would accept its credibility if the top ten didn’t contain everyone’s favourite famous and venerable institutions. You could make it interesting and exciting by leaving room for, say, two outliers or unexpected entrants, but the remaining eight had to be the ones you and I would guess were bound to be there. So you kind of had to work backwards from that: what were the criteria that would guarantee a top-three slot for, say, the University of Cambridge?

This way of working – or to be less tendentious, this pattern of rankings – has another effect. It creates a system in which one particular kind of institution becomes the benchmark for everyone. When people talk about ‘top universities’, or ‘elite institutions’, invariably they mean ones that manage to look and feel most like Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. You are as ‘good’ as the degree of your resemblance to this small group. Your aspirations for excellence must be based on your strategy to achieve Ivy League or Oxbridge similarity. You may do all sorts of valuable or worthy things, and no matter how innovative they are or how effectively they meet social, cultural or economic desiderata, if they are not based on the characteristics made desirable by that elite group the praise you will receive will never quite lack an undertone of condescension, and almost certainly won’t help you at all in any league table. Of course Oxbridge and the London University institutions and the Ivy League are excellent and to be admired. But is that the only acceptable gold standard?

All of this is proved emphatically in some of the loudest responses to the outcomes of TEF. Even TEF didn’t relegate Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College from the top grade; but it did send some other venerable institutions packing. No other London university made it to Gold, and several Russell Group members were awarded Silver and indeed Bronze. The Russell Group, according to its own website, represents ’24 leading UK universities’. You get the idea: you start with the assumption that these universities will ‘lead’ whatever you have come up with. And here is how the Russell Group responded to the results:

‘We need to recognise that developing a robust TEF that is truly reflective of the UK’s excellent higher education sector will take time… TEF does not measure absolute quality and we have raised concerns that the current approach to flags and benchmarking could have a significant unintended impact.’

I won’t comment here on the various questions and arguments that have been advanced on TEF, and I have no doubt at all that there is significant room for debate about the exercise, its merits and intentions. But, in full recognition of my special interest here, I will say this. It is high time that higher education becomes less monolithic. It is time to recognise that excellence is not incompatible with diversity, and that there are many different contributions universities can make – no, that truly leading universities can make – to help achieve society’s need for pedagogical and scholarly excellence; that there are different ways of realising intellectual creativity translated into social progress and that these different ways deserve proper funding; and that we must not accept a higher education hierarchy of elitism today any more than we would accept a socio-economic one. If TEF takes us even a little bit in this direction, then TEF has done something really good.


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.

Distributing research funding

October 30, 2012

I have nothing fundamentally against the Russell Group – some of my best friends work for member universities – but their statements do sometimes alarm me. For readers not familiar with the Russell Group, it is a London-based ‘mission group’ of (from its website) ’24 leading UK universities’. Its main role, as it understands this, is to promote the interests of these universities; though it has been suggested also that it is a would-be university cartel with price fixing on its mind. That may or may not be a fair comment, but, you know…

Anyway, the Russell Group has just published a paper in which it suggests that concentrating funding on a small number of research-intensive universities (by which it clearly means its member institutions) is in the wider public interest. The argument here is that intellectual excellence and knowledge innovation is promoted most effectively when it is resourced in a small but heavily promoted group of institutions, who then develop critical mass and are thus able to compete globally.

As we have noted here before, the idea of research concentration has taken hold of public policy formulation, and politicians in particular appear to be open to its attractions. But still, there is a fundamental flaw in the reasoning. National higher education systems do not gain international prominence because of a small number of favoured institutions: they gain recognition if the whole system demonstrates excellence. Knowledge-intensive investments in a country are made attractive by an overall culture of high value learning and research, not by pockets of achievement in a small number of institutions.

The task for the UK is to maintain a university sector which is recognisably excellent across the great majority of its institutions. This ensures also that excellence is both geographically spread (though probably in regional clusters) and nurtured within a variety of institutional missions. Research concentration promoted primarily in traditional universities will fail to secure some of the more desirable inward investment. To avoid unnecessary duplication, institutions should be encouraged to specialise in the more advanced areas, and then to pool key academics between universities in inter-intsitutional research programmes and partnerships.

It is of course right that research funding should not be distributed so widely that it is ineffective; it needs to be selective. But that selectivity should not focused on institutions; it should recognise excellent people, wherever they may work. So, with the greatest respect to our friends in the Russell Group, its approach to this should be viewed with some scepticism.

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.

Understanding student applications data

November 29, 2011

In the United Kingdom the Universities and College Admissions Service (UCAS), which handles student applications to higher education institutions, yesterday released the current applications figures for the coming academic year, and the numbers are significantly down on the comparable figures for last year. UK-wide the number is down 12.9 per cent.

On the face of it the reduction does not appear to be a result of the new fees régime in England, since the numbers are also down in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

University mission groups such as the Russell Group and Million+ have been quick to put their own interpretation on the data, but both have shown signs of nervousness about the numbers, and their statements are designed to persuade potential students to go ahead with their applications – and these can still be made in the UK until mid-January.

The truth is that we really don’t know right now what is happening. We don’t know whether the publicity around new funding and tuition fee arrangements has influenced student choice – and it is quite possible that some students are not aware that the position in Scotland is different. We don’t know for sure whether there are other demographic reasons for a decline in numbers. We don’t know what impact the recession is having, or fears about future economic developments.

What we do know, or at least imagine we know, is that we are heading into a much more uncertain era for higher education. In this setting, a greater sense of public policy stability and continuity will almost certainly be a good idea. The rather chaotic state of higher education strategy in England over the past year, if continued, could start to do serious damage.

Diversity of mission?

July 20, 2011

During a strategic planning exercise in Dublin City University a couple of years ago, I did a presentation in which I set out a number of mission statements from a variety of universities. Some of the universities were old – ancient, indeed – some were new, some were teaching-intensive, some research intensive, some were in major cities, some served sparsely population regions. I produced the mission statements, and in a separate order, the names of the universities; I then asked those present to see whether they could correctly link the universities to their missions. And of course they couldn’t – these statements were entirely interchangeable. They all said they wanted their institution to be as good as you could imagine in teaching, research, community engagement and innovation; or some such stuff. Some were able to say this quite snappily, some needed several paragraphs and long words. But really they all said the same thing.

What does this suggest? It could suggest, as one person argued at my presentation, that nobody should bother with such stuff anyway; mission statements are put together without much imagination, and probably as an after-thought to strategic planning, rather than as a foundation for it. Or it could suggest that, despite all claims to the contrary, in the end all universities have a very similar mission, and the differentiating factor is not what they do, but how good they are at doing it. That would be bad news for my present institution, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, as we have built up our profile based on the assertion that we are different. But what do we mean when we say that? How different are any of us, really?

Until now the key differentiator between universities, when all is said and done, has been money. When you have more resources, you can do different things. I suspect that many of us believe that if we had Harvard University’s reserves we’d be doing what Harvard does. But then again, some of us also increasingly think that, in today’s society, we need much greater diversity in higher education, not born out of necessity but based on genuine strategic intent. This probably sounds obvious enough to many, but in reality it isn’t. Diversity of mission to date hasn’t necessarily been based on strategic choice but on the recognition of inevitability. Those universities that stress their local role and teaching credentials are, I suspect, often doing so because they don’t have the resources to claim anything else with credibility. There’s nothing altogether wrong with that, because strategy is often in part about recognising what is achievable and then making that work for you. But there is an underlying hint that focusing on a local population and a teaching agenda is for the less well endowed and more modest institutions, and that therefore this agenda is in some ways not as good.

However, higher education now needs to find excellence in different contexts. We need to get away from the idea that, taking the UK as an example, Russell Group universities represent a ‘better’ and more excellent model of higher education. We need to have universities that aim to be world leaders, which includes leadership in research, but based on different strategic models. Some of this may be found in subject specialisation – the prioritisation of a smaller number of key areas – or in forms of teaching and learning innovation, or in support for economic development in a region (including perhaps a mission to address disadvantage), or in particular kinds of partnerships. But universities should not really be satisfied with a strategic model that is based on inferiority: we won’t have the resources to develop a global reputation, so we’ll concentrate on something more modest.

I have just tried to have a more up-to-date look at university mission statements, and interestingly many of those I looked at last time no longer publish one. But if they did, I hope that we might see the signs of a genuine commitment to diversity that is based on something more positive than being resigned to what is realistic, something that suggests that universities want to be excellent in their own way and have the confidence to believe in what they are doing, so that they would still do it even if they became very rich. In our fantasies, we shouldn’t all want to be Harvard.

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.

Secondary education: time to leave ‘soft subjects’ behind?

February 5, 2011

The Russell Group, which represents 20 universities that consider themselves to be the leading higher education institutions in the UK, has published a guide (Informed Choices) for secondary students advising them what subjects to select for A-levels so as to maximise their chances to secure the degree programme of their choice when they go on to higher education.

The key advice given to students is simple enough: go for so-called ‘facilitating’ subjects, these being Mathematics, English, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, History and Languages. These are the subjects, the guide says, that give students the best options later and provide them with the necessary grounding for degree programmes. The guide also advises students to avoid ‘soft’ subjects – those with a ‘vocational or practical bias’ such as Media Studies, Art and Design, Photography and Business Studies.

Of course this guide is not just a set of suggestions for secondary students, it is also part of an ongoing discussion – maybe even a battle – about the nature and purpose of education at different levels. The ‘facilitating’ subjects are those that will ground students in the traditional disciplines’, while the ‘soft’ subjects are examples of pre-tertiary interdisciplinarity.

I am not sure whether the Russell Group guide is right or wrong. It is probably right if you read it as a manual for preparation for entry to a traditional university. It is probably also right in the sense that secondary education needs to lay the groundwork for advanced work in degree programmes, bearing in mind that far too often students enter higher education lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills. It is also probably right in that it would move us away from excessive specialisation at too early an age. But in other ways it seems to represent a view that Victorian pedagogy found the perfect pitch. I think we must be more imaginative in how we devise education, and need to find ways of combining intellectual rigour with a slightly less rigid view of traditional disciplines, bearing in mind that some of the disciplinary boundaries were products of the state of knowledge of their day.

Like universities, schools cannot just stop the further development of pedagogical insights. We must keep moving.

Higher education: predicting the apocalypse

January 16, 2010

In many developed countries, though not all, higher education is currently experiencing significant cuts in public spending. In Ireland we have seen major reductions in funding over the past two years, and more is expected. Universities have been warning, though on the whole in a restrained fashion, that these cuts may seriously compromise our international standing.

No such restraint in the warnings has been exercised by our United Kingdom colleagues. I have previously drawn attention to the recent announcement of budget cuts in the UK, and have indicated that these are part of a pattern that should make us look again at what kind of university model may be viable in the future. The British universities themselves have put it all rather more dramatically: Steve Smith, the President of Universities UK, predicted that universities would have to ‘slash the number of courses, students and staff’; while the Russell Group (representing what they describe as the UK’s 20 leading universities) warned that as many as 30 universities ‘may not survive’.

There is little doubt that we are facing a key moment in higher education, in which the pressures on public finances are producing serious collateral damage on universities. However, publicly predicting ‘meltdown’ (as the Russell Group has done) and the likely closure of about a quarter of the sector is perhaps not the best strategy for dealing with this. Such warnings will have an effect only if they strike a chord with the public and thereby lead to pressure on the politicians. All the evidence suggests that this is not what happens at all, and predictions of doom and collapse may actually irritate some stakeholders, not least because most will assume that the closure of 30 universities is not a likely prospect.

So apart from the need to assess how institutions can live, develop and eventually prosper in a very different funding environment, we may also need to consider carefully how we carry our messages to the general public. Clearly we do need to be open about the difficulties we face, and we need to find supporters and allies. But we should avoid predicting the apocalypse, not least because our predictions could themselves undermine our confidence and our ability to address our problems.