Thomas Docherty argues for the demise of mission groups

The mission groups divide the academy, argues Thomas Docherty, and their demise could usher in a more rational, democratic sector

February 28, 2013

Source: Miles Cole

Instead of uniting to defend the whole, we established a polite version of a kind of warfare; different groups rivalling each other for limited territorial prestige

Since the 1992 abolition of the “binary divide” between polytechnics and universities, the “official” position is that the UK has had a unified university sector. The truth differs. The multiple fragmentation of the academy - initiated by mission groups - is encouraged by a government seemingly enslaved to an ideology of market competition as the only guarantor of values. In such a market, the idea of the university is threatened, replaced by a concept of diversity of provision that lacks serious rationale. Now, the mission groups themselves are fracturing, realigning. Does this offer a good basis for the rational construction of a diverse tertiary sector?

There are valid arguments to be had regarding the shape of the sector as a whole: should it be unified or diverse? However, the possibility of advancing such arguments on a rational basis, governed by policy or social need, is precluded by the ongoing existence of the mission groups. The reason is simple: they lack any serious legitimacy and operate more as class-based clubs than as forces that represent the academic values of a community of scholars and students. They contribute to what is essentially an irrational drift towards simple market fragmentation and class-based branding rather than to useful diversity. The real question is: should we rationalise tertiary education or persist in the class-based elitism of ever-more-select clubs?

In his 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson defined a “club” as “an assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions”. The clubs emerging at that time, some of them still in existence in London today, started informally: “good fellows” met in coffee houses to read, to debate politics, to discuss culture; the “certain condition” was that they would share the costs of the drinks. Essentially, the combination of literate education and money conferred prestige and cultural authority on the club and its members.

Ostensibly democratic, providing multiple authoritative voices distinct from government, the clubs nonetheless quickly established their exclusivity: it is hardly a club if just anyone can join. To be “one of us”, new members had to be recognisably “good fellows”; and sharing the bill became subscription membership. The authoritative voice of the clubs is not legitimised by broad democracy or “widened participation”; rather, the clubs formalise an authority based upon existing socio-economic inequalities. Their voice, while not that of the government, is nonetheless that of a self-declared elite, those who define themselves as prestigious good fellows able to pay the subs.

The mission group is our contemporary equivalent. Just as we might raise questions about the legitimacy of the cultural authority claimed by the 18th-century or 21st-century London club, so also we might raise similar questions about the mission groups. For whom do they speak? How do they legitimise their policy statements? What is their effect on the sector as a whole? How do they serve wider society’s predicaments, needs, or the democracy of widened participation in social power and self- determination?

Before 1992, the binary divide gave structural articulation to that peculiarly British disease, “class”, that denigrates workers-by-hand who, like civil engineers, wear hard hats. Unification of the sector seemed a good move: at a stroke, it could eliminate class divisiveness and establish a healthier attitude to the relations between academic and vocational endeavours.

However, that is not what happened. By 1992, the research assessment exercise had delivered its early verdicts, and its results troubled some vice-chancellors whose institutions had large medical schools. Medical schools are expensive and some had not done well in those early RAEs. So a group of those leaders subsequently gathered in the Hotel Russell in Bloomsbury, London. Thus began the fragmentation of the sector, not along rational grounds but rather according to the logic of Johnson’s club of good fellows.

Note the irony here: the “elite” Russell Group began when the performance of its medical schools was judged to be middling. However, it mutated quickly into a “special interest” group. By exclusivity, it became a self- declared elite, keen to claim local advantage, even exerting a negative influence over others. By a neat metonymy, a “Russell Group of vice- chancellors” became a group of “institutions”; yet there is no formal mechanism to legitimise the groups through democratic academic or student representation.

The Russell Group is 24 people.

In 2009, Michael Arthur, at that time the group’s chair, argued that its members should receive 90 per cent of all research funding (everyone else being mediocre, not “good fellows” at all). Instead of uniting to defend the whole, we established a polite version of a kind of gang warfare; different groups rivalling each other for limited territorial prestige. The already strong have failed to defend those they deem weak.

Such thinking damages the breadth of the research base, potentially depriving entire constituencies of academics and students of the intellectual and academic qualities that should be at the centre of universities. This club approximates to the condition of Johnson’s “cabal”: “a body of men united in some close design. A cabal differs from a party, as few from many.”

The existence of these oligarchies prevents the possibility of rational argument about better arrangements for the sector; it perpetuates class divisions that no amount of “widening participation” could counter. Their demise might prompt a return of integrity (Johnson: “wholeness”) and of legitimate democratic responsibility to a society that does not want its universities to serve the cause of greater inequality.

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