Academic disputes are so bitter, goes the old saw, because there's so little at stake. The number of such spats might be expected to grow as academics are asked to demonstrate their value in a time of shrinking resources. Institutions, too, face calls to deliver more with less, but individual universities can be counted on to refrain from sniping at each other publicly. Despite recent exhortations by the Government and the Confederation of British Industry for the sector to become more competitive, institutions tend to depart from an Oxbridge-style gentlemanly rivalry only when a takeover is mooted. Under questioning by MPs on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee earlier this year about the comparability of degrees between universities, not a single vice-chancellor broke ranks to proclaim the superiority of his or her courses. Suggestions that any new quality assurance regime should focus more on some parts of the sector than others were never voiced publicly.
Such discretion suggests that the sector as a whole would act collegially in these straitened economic times, suppressing private differences to present an image of unity before the Government and the public. The websites of the five university mission groups - the Russell Group, the 1994 Group, the University Alliance, Million+ and GuildHE - give few indications that this is not the case. Only the Russell Group, in a set of "aims and objectives" that makes frequent references to "leading universities", hints at rivalries.
Libby Aston, the new director of the University Alliance and former director of research at the Russell Group, says the groups "support and reflect the diversity in the sector rather than being in direct competition with each other". They support the work of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors' forum, by "bringing universities more closely into the policymaking process in order to improve it", she adds.
But events this year suggest that the groups' relationships with one another and with UUK may be a little more complicated. In spring, the Russell Group threatened to leave UUK after the latter announced plans to put up its annual subscription fee. UUK has declined to reveal its fees, but the University of Leeds has disclosed that it pays £51,000, while Lancaster University is charged £26,000. Some Russell Group members are understood to have argued that their subscription money would be better spent on strengthening the mission group's own position. Rick Trainor, principal of King's College London and a former UUK president, called an emergency meeting, gave a rallying speech and peace reigned - for a while.
This summer, after heavy lobbying from Million+, the Government offered 10,000 additional student places to the sector without extra funding in a bid to accommodate some of the large numbers of students who had been denied entry to university. Times Higher Education understands that UUK was initially planning to accept the extra numbers, but the Russell Group and the 1994 Group argued that this would be tantamount to accepting a cut in the unit of resource - the cash sum universities are given, per student, for teaching. The newer universities maintained that the unfunded places were a one-off response to an usual situation and agreed to take them.
As the new term began and the extent of the funding cuts the sector was likely to face became clearer, tensions mounted. One vice-chancellor from a Million+ institution accused universities of acting like "turkeys fighting over who will get it at Christmas". Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, told Times Higher Education that the sector was divided internally. "The mission groups reflect the divisions that exist and might be exacerbating them," he said.
A month later, 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".
But Andrew Wathey, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University and deputy chairman of the University Alliance, accused the Russell Group of inciting "unfounded panic" and said funding research based on "heritage" was a sure path to mediocrity.
Marie-Elisabeth Deroche-Miles, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne in France, has just completed a paper on the UK university mission groups, which is due to be published next year. She offers a theory about why the groups are so much more combative than their members.
She says: "Individual institutions can't denigrate each other publicly for many reasons: political correctness, possible fear of litigation, a possibility that the media may see the attacked institution as the underdog and support it." Neither would universities wish to sully their "incredibly smooth and well-polished fronts" with petty digs at one another, she adds. They leave the "dirty work" to the mission groups.
"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."
The mission groups exist to highlight the differences between parts of the sector, Deroche-Miles adds. If they are not sufficiently vocal, they will lose their raison d'etre. "It is in their intrinsic interest to air their positions clearly and often enough that member institutions keep recognising themselves in the message and keep belonging."
Deroche-Miles believes the groups are a negative influence in the sector. "Their propensity to hire professional communicators, to sometimes adopt the language of businesses competing for the same market and to defend fairly aggressively the agenda of particular sections of the higher education sector is now promoting disharmony rather than just mere diversity," she says, adding that the Government will not be slow to exploit these divisions.
Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, suggests that by undermining an unspoken agreement among universities to maintain one another's reputations, the mission groups could damage the sector's future success and autonomy. In his new book, The Question of Morale: Managing Happiness and Unhappiness in University Life, he writes: "What lies behind much of the historical success of the UK sector is the concept of a controlled reputational range. It is important that institutions at each end of the reputational pecking order can recognise each other, and have something tied up in each other's success. The self-appointed 'gangs' in the system don't help much in this respect. For them, 'autonomy' is mostly bound up in getting a third party (the Government) to restrict the freedom of manoeuvre of their rivals." He points to the jockeying that has taken place after each research assessment exercise - "for which 2008 is no exception".
Criticism also comes from Rob Cuthbert, professor of higher education management at the University of the West of England. Watson's description of the groups as gangs "captures the mentality and posturing very well", he says. "It's about 'respect' and avoiding being 'dissed'. That was notably true for Million+ in its earlier CMU (Coalition of Modern Universities and later Campaign for Mainstream Universities) days. Now that it's a think-tank, it is much closer to being what a useful pressure group should be."
Cuthbert characterises the Russell Group as suffering from a "reverse Groucho Marx syndrome - these are universities that want to belong to a club that only has members like them". The 1994 Group is "like the Football League Championship - everyone knows there's a Premier League, but they use a label that avoids the issue". For the University Alliance, "it's more about not being left out. If the others are all in gangs, the alliance wants to be in one too, even though they aren't so sure where their own neighbourhood is." He looks most favourably on GuildHE, which he sees as "less interested in division and more like a real mission group on retreat, finding gentler ways to engage".
Mission groups are not representative constituencies, he stresses, and should not be treated as such by the Government: "They are pressure groups, pure and simple."
That point was behind the disquiet with which some in the sector greeted the recent appointment of the Russell Group's director-general, Wendy Piatt, to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills advisory panel on New Industry, New Jobs, Universities and Skills, albeit in a personal capacity.
"We should protect our ability to discuss policy issues collectively within UUK or other fully representative bodies," Cuthbert says. "The groups are developing in different ways, but the growth of activity within group boundaries may weaken cross-sector collaboration and exchange on such core issues as teaching and learning, widening participation and even on how students' unions are developing."
A few years ago, UUK floated a proposal for a new structure that included mission groups as "constituencies". The membership threw out the idea. In future, regional higher education associations may play a bigger part in UUK, Cuthbert suggests. "Although their effectiveness varies between regions, they do have universities of all kinds sitting around one table."
But would the sector be better off without mission groups? Many students and academics have never heard of them, suggesting that any animosity created by their competitiveness is having little effect on the ground.
Alice Hynes, GuildHE's chief executive, admits: "Most colleagues and even senior policy staff, if asked to put all universities into their mission groups, would get it wrong." Many would be surprised to learn that Durham University is not in the Russell Group and that the University of Hertfordshire and Liverpool John Moores University are in not Million+ but the University Alliance, she adds.
Julius Weinberg, who as acting vice-chancellor of the unaffiliated City University London has no conflicts of interest, says it is inevitable that groups will form in a sector as large and diverse as Britain's. "We have to be realistic. We do have to be careful that the common interest isn't damaged; but I think the sector is mature enough to deal with competition between groups, and UUK is good at drawing institutions' attention when it starts getting out of hand."
A few years ago, he says, there was talk that the groups would put UUK out of business. "Now there's an acceptance that we still need UUK and if it wasn't there we'd have to invent it."
If the mission groups' rise is inevitable, so is the decline of UUK as the dominant voice of higher education. As Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, says: "On so many issues it is impossible for UUK to adopt a position because of the diverse interests of its members." He is a supporter of the mission groups. "You could see them as a testament to the diversity of our higher education sector," he says. "The difference between Rose Bruford College - a wonderful place - and the University of Oxford is immense, and it is inevitable that they will have different interests and that a single body will be unable to represent them."
Jeroen Huisman, director of the International Centre for Higher Education Management at the University of Bath, agrees. "When the members of UUK do unite and agree on a position, what comes out is often a weak signal to government, or mere lip service. It will say 'higher education is important', and we're left thinking: what do universities actually want here?
"I see it as a good thing that the Russell Group stands up and makes a plea for a certain point and Million+ argues from a different perspective," says Huisman. "Then at least we know that there is something to debate."
Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group, concurs, arguing that mission groups speak out when no one else will. In 2006, the 1994 Group admitted that some universities needed to focus more attention on teaching. It founded an annual "student experience" conference jointly with the National Union of Students. At a fringe meeting at this year's Conservative Party Conference, Wes Streeting, the NUS president, condemned the mission groups for pursuing a self-interested agenda, but he praised the conference.
Marshall continues: "With their recent comments on the need for research concentration; for additional student numbers; and the reliance of UK higher education on international student recruitment, (vice-chancellors) Michael Arthur, Les Ebdon and Paul Wellings opened up recognisably controversial debates, but ones that clearly needed to be had." He concludes: "Would it really have been better for the sector if they had all remained silent?"
Universities do not wish to sully their incredibly smooth and well-polished fronts with petty digs at each other. They leave the dirty work to the mission groups
Chair: Michael Arthur, vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds
Director-general: Wendy Piatt
Number of members: 20
The Russell Group of research-intensive institutions, most of which have medical schools, was formed in 1994 by a group of vice-chancellors who held a meeting at the Hotel Russell in London.
"Many would say that their objective was pure and simple: to make sure that the new universities did not get their hands on research and other funding," says one senior source who asked not to be named.
In 2006, the Russell Group "professionalised" by appointing Wendy Piatt director-general, with a remit to set up an organisation (officially a company limited by guarantee) to produce research and evidence-based policy. Piatt says: "If we are going to promote a greater understanding of the needs, priorities and importance of world-class research universities, we have to produce the evidence and clear information."
Most of the group's research is not disseminated publicly, and it relies heavily on behind-the-scenes influence with the Government and the Labour Party. Piatt used to work in Tony Blair's strategy unit; her PA, Carol Glenn, worked for Labour MP Diane Abbott; and former research fellow Sarah Chaytor is the daughter of MP David Chaytor, currently suspended from the party in the wake of the expenses scandal. Policy analyst Julie Tam has worked as an adviser to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills; and Elizabeth Hayward, wife of Peter Hain MP, has handled recruitment for the group in the past.
While Daniel O'Connor, the group's press and external relations officer, previously headed the Westminster office of Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Universities Secretary, sector sources have suggested that the group's links with the Conservatives have suffered because of its close connection with Labour.
The Russell Group rejects the mission group label. "We tend to use the phrase 'representative/membership organisation' to describe ourselves," a spokesman says.
King's College London
London School of Economics
Queen's University Belfast
University College London
Chair: Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University
Director: Libby Aston
Number of members: 22
The group started out in 2006 as the Alliance of Non-Aligned Universities, a group of 18 universities that defined themselves by not belonging to the other mission groups. It later became the University Alliance, with 23 members.
Three institutions have since left (including Cranfield University and the Institute of Education) and two have joined. This year, Libby Aston, formerly director of research at the Russell Group, became director of the alliance.
Members of the group are sometimes seen as disparate, but Aston says they are all "actively engaged in their economic and social environments with close links to the professions and new industries and have a deep-rooted commitment to access through flexible provision".
She continues: "Mission groups play a valuable role in supporting the work of Universities UK through bringing universities more closely into the policymaking process in order to improve it."
University of Glamorgan
University of Wales Institute, Cardiff
University of Wales, Newport
Chairman: Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire
Chief executive: Pam Tatlow
Subscriptions: Million+ declined to say, but fees are understood to be about £20,000
Number of members: 28
The Coalition of Modern Universities formed in 1997 and changed its name to Campaign for Mainstream Universities in 2004. It brought together vice-chancellors from the post-1992 universities who wanted to persuade Universities UK to take on their concerns. (To date only one UUK president, Roderick Floud, has come from a post-1992 university.)
In 2007, the CMU rebranded itself as a think-tank, Million+, and has since published a series of reports.
Pam Tatlow, its chief executive, says: "There are risks in the sector being divided, and there would be merit in the mission groups and UUK uniting around common causes. However, there are hierarchies in current funding regimes that encourage different priorities. While these remain, interest groups are likely to continue.
"We have recognised the disadvantages of a mission-group approach by refocusing as a university think-tank."
University of Abertay Dundee
Leeds Metropolitan University
Southampton Solent University
University of Teesside
Thames Valley University
Chair: Ruth Farwell, vice-chancellor of Bucks New University
Chief executive: Alice Hynes
Number of members: 21
The Standing Conference of Principals (SCOP) was formed in 1991 by heads of colleges offering higher education programmes. Some SCOP members left the group when these colleges were given taught degree-awarding powers.
In 2006, SCOP became GuildHE. Three of its current members do not belong to Universities UK.
"GuildHE is not a mission group," says Alice Hynes, chief executive. The body is one of three formal representative bodies (alongside UUK and the Association of Colleges) that the Government consults when it wants a response on cross-sector issues such as swine flu and the new immigration rules.
Hynes says: "We would all be better served by taking a common stance, creating a common front and delivering a few simple messages ... in the 'HE ecology', it is unwise to damage parts of the system that are underpinning the whole."
Arts University College Bournemouth
Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln
Harper Adams University College
Leeds Trinity University College
Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts
Newman University College
Norwich University College of the Arts
Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication
Royal Agricultural College
St Mary's University College Twickenham
University College Falmouth
University College Plymouth St Mark and St John
Robin Baker, vice-chancellor of the University of Chichester, says: "One might naively assume that the richness of UK universities' geographical spread, their combined turnover, the number of people (ie, voters) they employ and serve, the sector's profile internationally, not to mention the scale of its contribution to the nation in terms of knowledge, must make it an extraordinarily powerful direct influence on government thinking and policy.
"The reality is, of course, different. It does not take any politician or senior civil servant long to recognise that there are few more fertile environments to try out divide-and-rule tactics than higher education.
"This is not a sector that is cohesive. The existence of the lobby groups (crudely characterised 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') that co-exist with Universities UK (and GuildHE) simply advertises this."
City University London
University of Wales, Lampeter
Chairman: Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University
Executive director: Paul Marshall
Total members: 19
The first meeting of the "small and beautiful group" of research-intensive universities (without medical schools) was held in 1994 at the Reform Club; the vice-chancellors of the universities of Durham, East Anglia, Essex, Lancaster, Sussex and York were present.
A few months later, the '94 Group was formed with six other universities. In May 1997, it changed its named to the 1994 Group.
The London School of Economics and the University of Warwick have left the group since 2006 to join the Russell Group. The most recent entrant is the Institute of Education.
Paul Marshall, who was named executive director in 2006, says the group was formed by the older universities as a response to polytechnics gaining university status. "It made sense to come together to see if they could establish clear mutual positions on important policy and funding issues."
The group became a formal lobbying organisation in 2005 in advance of the introduction of tuition fees. "We work closely with Universities UK," Marshall says. "The 1994 Group can magnify the power of (UUK's) collective message through our own lobbying."
Institute of Education, University of London
Queen Mary, University of London
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London