There’s no distance left to run

The 1994 Group’s break-up reflects fragmentation in the sector and leaves the ‘elite’ tag to the Russell Group alone

November 14, 2013

So farewell, 1994 Group – you had been looking a little thin recently, but your demise was unexpectedly sudden nonetheless.

It’s hard to feel too tearful about the passing of a mission group, particularly in light of the problems caused by factionalism in higher education. But it does leave behind some happy memories – if not of joy, fun and seasons in the sun, then at least of serious research on matters of national importance and an approach that was less partisan than that of the (thriving) Russell Group.

The 1994 Group’s demise came as a surprise because, despite haemorrhaging members in the past year or two, it was supposed to have been relaunched this week. Perhaps its board decided that this simply would have delayed the inevitable.

At a time of growing division between the haves and have-nots, higher education increasingly seems to be split into the Russell Group and the rest. The undisguised joy of the four 1994 Group institutions admitted to the Russell Group last year was striking: one chair of council stood on stage at a party thrown to celebrate its new status and announced that his university had secured the “holy grail”.

Its demise came as a surprise because it was supposed to have been relaunched. Perhaps its board decided that this simply would have delayed the inevitable

Despite efforts to reinvigorate the 1994 Group’s appealing concept of a network of universities defined by a focus on small class sizes and the student experience within a research-intensive culture, four others jumped ship in the wake of that raid and the 11 left behind clearly felt the game was up.

The Russell Group juggernaut has picked up considerable momentum in the past few years, to the extent that its name is now part of the vernacular among ambitious parents and pupils (who are described by their teachers as being on the “Russell Group track”). It was looking for two things when it poached the universities of Exeter, Durham, York and Queen Mary, University of London: research income and selectivity of student intake.

On the latter point, the introduction of the AAB rule was instrumental: it looked odd for the self-appointed “elite” not to include some of the universities with the best-qualified students. On the former, our annual analysis of research council funding, published this week, tells the story: in 2012-13, the Russell Group took 75 per cent of the total, some £1.1 billion. The 1994 Group figure, meanwhile, was £68 million, 5 per cent of the total and less than University College London (the top earner with £135 million), Imperial College London and the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.

There are some discrepancies: the 1994 Group’s top earner, Loughborough University, was awarded £22 million – more than three of the four Russell Group newcomers (and a couple of its longer-standing members).

But Loughborough’s take was also far more than the three lowest-earning members of its own now disbanded group, which received less than £1 million each.

In its closing statement, the 1994 Group says that “as institutions we have expanded and changed over time to the point where the need for the group as originally constituted no longer exists”.

Its demise also reflects the Russell Group’s success in squeezing out a rival that sought to share the “elite” tag – and the Darwinian principles currently at play in higher education.

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