Earlier this month, Universities UK, the vice-chancellors' umbrella body, launched its rah-rah for higher education. The Impact of Universities on the UK Economy, its report championing the sector, drew attention to higher education's very healthy income of £23.4 billion in 2007-08, above what the pharmaceutical industry (no laggard itself) brings in and on a par with the gas distribution industry. It pointed out that our universities generate about 2.3 per cent of the UK's gross domestic product and employ 1.2 per cent of the full-time workforce. For every 100 full-time posts in higher education, another 100 are created elsewhere. With 372,400 people in higher education, it all adds up to a lot of jobs.
That's a pretty impressive performance by any standard, and such an important contribution to the national coffers should make universities a powerful force to reckon with.
But the very reason for this strength - the rich diversity of institutions, all with their very different offerings and competing interests - is also the sector's weakness. Because they have such varying needs and missions, it has made sense for broadly similar universities to band together to voice their own particular concerns and fight for what they want.
In our cover story, Robin Baker, vice-chancellor of the University of Chichester, one of the 26 unaffiliated universities, differentiates these mission groups as: "we are the best", "we are almost as good", "we are better than you think" and "it's size that matters and that's us". Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, more forcefully calls them "self-appointed gangs". While the individual universities respect an unspoken gentleman's agreement to stick together and not criticise one another in public (remember the vice-chancellors who so frustrated the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee earlier this year?), when they are in their posses the gloves come off.
Take the recent row over research funding. Michael Arthur, head of the Russell Group (20 members) and vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, wants all the cash concentrated on the top 25-30 universities. He says the UK will be on the road to "mediocrity" if the forthcoming research excellence framework continues the trend of spreading funding across the sector. Whereas Andrew Wathey, deputy chairman of the University Alliance (22 members) and vice-chancellor of the University of Northumbria, says that funding research on the basis of "heritage" is a sure road to mediocrity.
Wherever the road leads, it almost certainly ends in a cul-de-sac. In representing their own needs too ferociously, the mission groups undermine the interests of the sector as a whole, allowing whoever is in power to divide and rule. Amid recession and pre-election posturing, the most vital task for universities is to convey to all political parties that "we're worth it". Does insistence that funding be concentrated reinforce this message? No, it implies that only a small proportion of the sector is worth investing in. Politicians must be convinced that any money they put into higher education is a good investment.
UUK has made a good start at making the case with its recent report. But the pressure is on: now more than ever, the sector needs not only a single voice but a strong voice. Let's hope that UUK is up to the job.