Russell Group

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.”


“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)

Levels of Advice, and Understanding When It’s Not Needed

When you know what you want and have a good plan of how you want to achieve it, be careful before you blindly follow more general advice.

After my last post on reputation, I read an interesting Guardian piece on whether students should be encouraged to set their sights on Russell Group universities:

“…teachers now have an explicit incentive to focus on the “big brand” universities, following a controversial decision in the Department for Education last summer to collect data on how many pupils each school was sending to Russell Group universities. At a roundtable in the department this month, leading figures from outside the group will fight to derail this new measure – which has sparked a fierce row behind the scenes.”

The article mentions Sophie Cousens, who has been interested in marine biology since she was a child. Her main focus was to study the subject at Plymouth University. Cousens explains that she researched beforehand and was careful about making the right decision for her.

What interests you (photo by AlphachimpStudio)

What interests you? Where are you headed? (photo by AlphachimpStudio)

However, the Guardian reports that Cousens felt pressured to apply to a Russell Group university. The advice was seemingly for her own good, but she had already done the necessary research. Cousens had looked at Russell Group universities and found they either did not provide a marine biology course or that the course did not appeal.

Teachers had an incentive, as well as a piece of general advice which Cousens appears to have long surpassed. That advice may have been useful to some, but not to a person with clear plans. Unsurprisingly, there was a conflict of interests here. I doubt the pressure Cousens faced was spiteful. However, it does highlight that advice works on different levels.

When you have a detailed understanding of your aims, you’re in a good position. General aims are more likely, if not finding you draw a blank completely. None of this is to be ashamed of.

What’s important is to be aware of where you stand one way or the other.

Sophie Cousens knew what she wanted. General advice wasn’t helpful in this situation. Consider this point made by the Russell Group’s director, Wendy Piatt:

“All Russell Group universities demonstrate excellence and critical mass in research as well as a first-class educational experience, and excellence in enterprise and innovation.”

And the following comment from Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University, Steve Smith (Exeter being a member of the Russell Group):

“It does matter which institution you go to. The evidence is clear that it does affect your future, and we should encourage students to go to the best institution they can.”

Both Piatt and Smith provide a general argument to the situation. Whether or not ‘the evidence is clear’, this is different to Cousens’ individual research. These two perspectives view reputation in very different ways. In both cases, reputation has legs. There is no right or wrong.

As general advice, a push toward a Russell Group university may help a student with good grades and few plans ahead of them. I’m not saying the advice is correct, but it is one way to help someone think about the future, consider what they can achieve, and focus on a specific set of universities so they’re not overwhelmed. The question is, how many people are best served with this level of advice?

Cousens didn’t need pushing in that direction. As Steve Smith explains:

“I think it is a mistake to assume that everyone should aspire to go to a Russell Group university…There are other good institutions doing different things, and some great subjects that aren’t offered at Russell Group institutions.”

So where do you stand?

  • For students with a bold plan, advice should be about giving them the best chance of reaching that goal;
  • For students with a vague plan, advice needs to be tailored carefully to help them build something more concrete;
  • For students with good grades but poor plans, more general advice may be reasonable. Not everybody knows what they want, but that doesn’t make them a lost cause. At the same time, general advice should still be varied and not based on pressure toward a single goal, such as attending a Russell Group institution.

Excellence is apparent in different ways, just like reputation. Whatever level of advice you need, find what seems most useful to you and act on it accordingly, because that’s what matters.

“People always talk about, reputation...

Universities Going Private: Should We Ask ‘If’ or ‘When’?

Will any of the ‘big player’ universities attempt to go private any time soon?

With the news that Pearson is introducing for-profit private HE, “the first time a FTSE 100 company has directly delivered a degree course”, I wondered what other changes might be on the horizon for current universities.

In 2010, the Telegraph reported that an unnamed source from the University of Cambridge had suggested the university may have to go private in order to compete better and raise enough funds.

Which way to go? (photo by Lori Greig)

Which way to go? (photo by Lori Greig)

Labour MP Barry Sheerman was also quoted, saying “I was told by Cambridge they may privatise themselves because they are so aggrieved by the cuts and by Lord Browne’s proposals”.

While the Telegraph piece went on to say that a Cambridge spokesman dismissed the idea of going private, they were also vague enough to explain that “The university has reached no official position on these matters”.

Add the fact that Cambridge also had “a funding gap of some £9,000 for each of its 12,000 undergraduates in 2010/11”, the new level of tuition fees isn’t going to bridge that gap. While fees may be higher for students, those fees are effectively a change to where the funding was already coming from. Some institutions may improve their income slightly depending on the fees they set, but in most cases there won’t be much extra cash flowing in.

Cambridge is one of the few UK universities that is graced with consistently large alumni donations. But that doesn’t mean the university can rely on that to make up for any shortfalls. Cambridge has other income streams too, but I’m sure it doesn’t wish to use these as a backstop either. That wouldn’t make sense. And no matter how strong the future appears, that won’t stop further considerations over the way the university is funded.

Oxford and Cambridge have just come under fire over special funding for their tutorial and interview process. Criticism like this hasn’t stopped the funding yet, but it puts further pressure on policy makers to remove the funding, and further pressure on Oxbridge to find alternatives.

Pearson’s move into degrees is of the for-profit type. Perhaps Cambridge, or another established university, would consider going private under a ‘not-for-profit’ banner.

When Universities UK reported on private provision of HE, it said “The for-profit/not-for-profit distinction is important, but even within the not-for-profit sector there is a wide range of provider”.

UUK go on to explain that many not-for-profit outfits tend to operate very commercially and are businesslike in their dealings, looking to make ‘profits’ of a kind. However:

“…their key motive is to promote public good. This is a key distinction between them and the private for-profit providers which, although they may be working in the same arena and providing a public good, do so in the expectation that they can earn surpluses which flow into the private hands of shareholders. An essential distinction therefore relates to the distribution and uses to which surpluses are put.” (2.8, p.14)

Current universities may not consider making a complete push to become for-profit entities, but what about not-for-profit possibilities? I wouldn’t rule it out.

The government’s HE White Paper goes as far as saying that not-for-profit providers would be able to apply for HEFCE grants in the same way as HE and FE institutions. (6.29, p.73) Is there enough scope for universities to change their outlook and manage a win-win?

My guess is that should any institution find a suitable way to go down this path, they would opt for not-for-profit billing.

However, a HEPI report on private providers questions whether the difference between for-profit and not-for-profit really matters. It first suggests that the distinction isn’t automatically necessary, because “the public interest lies in education of high quality being provided and consumer interests being protected – whatever the status of provider”.

HEPI does goes on to say that careful scrutiny would be required to ensure this quality and that impact can be assessed. It concludes:

“Care will also be needed in shaping a new and comprehensive regulatory framework.  If an equitable and broadly comparable regulatory framework is developed for all institutions in the sector, it may need some mechanisms for monitoring surpluses and alerting a regulator where the amount given to shareholders might be considered excessive.”

Distinctions probably do matter and are likely to do so for now, which is why not-for-profit seems most likely.

How viable is it for universities to smoothly transition into private entities? I’m sure other commentators may have a better view on these matters than I do. Whatever the case is, you can be sure that a lot of consideration has been going on for quite some time now.

While the Telegraph’s suggestion of Cambridge going private was ultimately dismissed by the university, it was clear that the situation was under continued assessment. In addition, Wendy Piatt of the Russell Group (which includes Cambridge in its membership) said that going private may be a necessity in the future. Reported in the same Telegraph piece, Piatt explained, “That would require a lot of consideration and we would hope not to have to go there, but we would certainly have to consider more radical options”.

As things stand now, those radical options may be looking sensible to some institutions. Not just Cambridge. Therefore, of universities going private, which is the most important question to ask: ‘if’ or ‘when’?

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)