1994 Group, Natural End Points, and Ongoing Plots

The 1994 Group of universities has today announced that it has come to a “natural end point“. But the end of this plot leaves many others wide open.

What will come of other mission groups? And for the universities previously under the 1994 Group umbrella, how will they choose to respond?

Dead end (photo by Scott Ableman)

Dead end (photo by Scott Ableman) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Mission groups generally set to put some kind of vocal pressure on the government and other policy shapers/makers when important issues are under discussion, or desperately need it. For that reason, I don’t think they’ll disappear any time soon. Uncertainty about the future will keep them going if nothing else will. Without wider representative voices, institutions would be in a much weaker position.

After the 1994 Group announcement, two tweets from Times Higher Education staff made interesting points:

Will the Russell Group become the ‘last one standing’? If so, what will that mean for the group and for higher education as a whole? If not, will other mission groups feel the need to alter their brand image?

With 24 universities currently in the Russell Group, I’ve mentioned before that it’s close to Michael Arthur’s comments on 25-30 institutions that should get the lion’s share of research funding.

Arthur’s comments suggest the possibility that we won’t see many more universities move over to the Russell Group.

No matter how large the membership becomes, if the group became the only one to remain, it would be all too easy to see the sector as two-tier:

1. An elite level of institutions in a powerful and vocal position;
2. All the rest.

That might be simplistic, but the danger is there. When I wrote a chapter for the Pearson book, Blue Skies, I made the following points:

“As a diverse community, we cannot all face the same direction, but we should aim to work as a collective nonetheless.”

and

“HE should benefit society as a whole. To do this, focus must rest more on achievement, and less on competition.”

The Board of the 1994 Group acknowledged this. They stated that “the sector is stronger when it works together”.

Sadly, the current system in HE, especially regarding fees, means that competition is only set to grow. How do you deal with collaborative representation then? Represent everyone and you represent no one.

It was less than a month ago when the Russell Group was being represented in the media, after calls for an increase or removal of the tuition fees cap. Does this favour all universities outside the Russell Group remit? Is it reasonable to focus on one group when it may only represent one aspect of the higher education landscape?

As Marie-Elisabeth Deroche-Miles has predicted, we could see greater competition, leading to more outspoken representatives.

From this perspective, mission groups on the whole could seek to toughen up, rather than close down.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be changes in terms of vision and/or membership. It may be a necessary development. So despite today’s news, the end of the 1994 Group isn’t a definitive sign that mission groups have had their day. It is more a sign of an unsettling under way. Where it will take us, we cannot yet tell.

As Phil Baty tweeted, many members of the 1994 Group had been strong players. This strength is what led a number of institutions to move to the Russell Group last year. If those universities believed mission groups no longer mattered, they would have simply left the 1994 Group, rather than move elsewhere.

Under the current system, the collaborations do matter. They help communicate the big ideas, outline the future visions, and point out oversights that make an impact on a wide scale.

No matter what scale you take representation, you will see many flaws as well as strengths. That doesn’t mean we should give up.

As my Blue Skies piece said, contradiction is (and always will be) higher education’s great strength. The community must work together, despite differences. Communities within that community must make their case heard. It would be a mistake to end up with one community in a dominant position and another community fighting for the scraps. That won’t be in the interests of society, since there is so much investment and involvement. Such an obvious two-tier setup would change opinions way beyond the universities.

Whether the end of the 1994 Group came as a shock or as an inevitable result of recent events, it marks the end of a chapter, but hardly the end of the book. The “natural end point” for the 1994 Group leaves enough characters remaining and many unanswered questions. Where will the plot turn next?

Caution. Which way to turn? (photo by tm-tm) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Caution. Which way to turn? (photo by tm-tm) (CC BY-SA 2.0)