Twilight of the mission groups?

Ourania Filippakou and Ted Tapper consider whether they are heading for extinction

November 28, 2013

The Russell Group itself may fragment. It is not hard to imagine its world-class inner circle deciding to break away

Much attention has been paid to the demise of the 1994 Group – not least in The Poppletonian last week. Analysis so far has focused on how its membership haemorrhaged, falling from a high of 20 universities to just 11 after a number of institutions left to join the rival Russell Group. The story has been read as a victory for the latter, but it is possible to question whether its future is really so secure.

When mass higher education emerged in the UK, accompanied by a wider range of provision, the birth of the mission groups was almost inevitable. They have served the dual purpose of bringing together institutions that embrace roughly parallel goals while enabling more effective representation of their interests.

The problem for the 1994 Group, which labelled itself as representing the UK’s smaller research-intensive universities, was that the Russell Group successfully positioned itself as representing the interests of the leading research-intensives. Hence, the layman might reason, if you really believe you are a research-intensive, then surely, regardless of size, you should belong to the Russell Group? In that sense, any attempt by the 1994 Group to soldier on with its rump of small research-intensives was doomed to failure.

If the 1994 Group had successfully recruited new members, it is likely that this would have required it to adopt a new, less focused identity. This might have been seen as unconvincing, an exercise in institutional survival rather than a genuine effort to bring together universities with broadly shared goals.

The Russell Group is now the only organisation with a creditable claim to represent the research-intensives. However, not all of its 24 members can realistically claim world-class research status. It seems likely that the principal allure to the group of some of its more recent recruits, such as the universities of Exeter, Durham and York, was their record in attracting undergraduates with higher entry qualifications than some of its more established members.

With policymakers and students paying increasing attention to the importance of high-quality undergraduate teaching, a mission group can more plausibly flag the commitment of its membership to offering “an outstanding teaching and learning experience” (as the Russell Group website claims) if it is composed of universities that attract the most highly qualified applicants. Thus, the enlarged size of the group may have as much to do with a subtle modification of its terms of entry as with its long-established identity.

But as its membership (and the basis for it) expands, the Russell Group itself may fragment. It is not hard to imagine its world-class inner circle of Oxbridge, Imperial College London, University College London, the London School of Economics and King’s College London deciding to break away. It is reasonable to ask what significance membership has for these institutions, and it is hard not to feel that the group needs them more than they need it.

With market pressures increasingly being brought to bear on the sector, if a university is to maintain a recognisable identity with a broad appeal in the future, it is going to need to look beyond mission group membership and to its own laurels.

It would be an overstatement to say that mission groups have had their day entirely, but future institutional co-operation will surely be built around smaller, shifting, ad hoc alliances based upon shared academic concerns, such as partnerships in degree programmes, research initiatives and even access agreements.

Within this context, Universities UK remains the best placed advocate for that most critical of issues – a sane funding policy that will enhance the general welfare of UK higher education. If the demise of the 1994 Group diminishes the factional lobbying on issues such as quality assurance and research selectivity that has been so prevalent in the past two decades, then its bereft former members will benefit as much as every other UK institution.

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