mission groups

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)

Mission Groups, Labels, and Getting Tough on HE

Now that the Russell Group has officially welcomed Durham, Exeter, Queen Mary UoL, and York to its list of member institutions, it’s worth revisiting a 2009 Times Higher Education piece about mission groups:

“…Michael Arthur, head of the Russell Group, argued that giving research money to universities other than the 25-30 top institutions amounted to funding ‘mediocrity’. He said that 90 per cent of research funding should be concentrated on this elite: giving any more to the rest would ‘come at a price’.”

There are now 24 universities in the Russell Group, ever so close to the 25-30 mentioned by Michael Arthur.

These aren’t automatically the top 24 institutions, especially as the diversity and purposes of HE increases. However, the collective influence of these institutions will no doubt dominate proceedings when it comes to research.

The timing in welcoming four new members to the Russell Group is important and will surely serve to strengthen their approach over the coming months and years.

Also worth noting from the THE piece is a remark made by Marie-Elisabeth Deroche-Miles at University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne:

“My prediction is that the fiercer the competition becomes between higher education institutions in the current market context, the more outspoken their various representatives are going to be.”

Increasingly aggressive higher ed?

Another question is whether or not we’re ‘all in this together’. Which type of university sounds most accurate:

  • ‘the’ university;
  • ‘this’ university;
  • ‘our’ university?

In considering this, it’s useful to quote Ronald Barnett from his recent book, “Being A University“:

“So the university has its own being, independently of its members. It is not that ‘the university is its members and its members are the university’. To the contrary, the corporate university is fashioned as an entity distinct from its members. That is its point. The old-style research university was ‘loosely coupled’ (Clark, 1983: 17): its members saw little in common among themselves and their relationship with their university was semi-detached. Their loyalty lay towards their discipline (Becher, 1989). The typical academic might know better and feel more connection with other researchers in his or her discipline on the other side of the world than with an academic in another discipline in the same university, even in the same building. So the corporate university is a vehicle through which to develop collective ties. Now, in the corporate university, every member of staff can –or should– feel themselves to be a part of the same enterprise.” [pages 50-51]

Do umbrella mission groups make a difference to where individuals and/or institutions place themselves? Are we to refer to ‘the corporate mission group’, or something completely different?

photo by Christi Nielsen

How are you labelled, how is a university labelled, and how is a mission group labelled? (photo by Christi Nielsen)