A reader writes: I was recently buttonholed in the rest rooms of the Athenaeum by a woman in dark glasses who said she was being interviewed for a named chair in biochemistry at a "discount-for-cash university in central London that had best remain nameless". Having been away "leading a team of well-endowed researchers in Southern California" for five years, she was worried she may have missed some of the latest university news. Could I tell her "how the sector shakes down" before the interview?
Dr Dai Llemmer writes: Who's hot and who's not in the volatile world of UK higher education? Well, university-watchers agree that this year has been a fairly crazy one. The biggest surprise was obviously the takeover of the Higher Education Funding Council for England by WalMart, which made even the American press sit up, but there's been a good deal of manoeuvring behind the scenes too, not least in the area of university groups and alliances.
It's a bit complicated, but try to keep up. You will be relieved to hear that the dear old Russell Group still tops the table. They take their name, of course, from Russell Crowe, their honorary president, whose performance in Gladiator inspires both their testosterone-intensive research ethos and their short-lived, and now much regretted, motto: "On our signal, unleash metrics!" When they catch a cold, Gordon Brown invests in Kleenex.
Then comes everyone's favourite, the 1664 Group (formerly the 1994 Group, renamed after sponsorship by Kronenbourg). It is not to be confused with the 1984 Group, the association of "personality-led" Stalinist universities (strap-line: "Academic freedom is slavery") who form a common-interest group with the Walsall Pact (formerly The West Midlands Alliance of Post-1992 Institutions), based on a shared taste for martial music and resentment of the Russell Group.
Then there is the elite 1966 Group, open only to institutions with the same name as a member of the England World Cup winning team: Liverpool John Moore(s); London South Bank(s) and Charlton College of Art (two votes).
There is the very elite Royal and Ancients (representing colleges with the right to eat swan during Lent) and the frankly decadent Soissant Neuf group (anyone with links with the Sorbonne).
At the other end of the scale there is the DFU (Don't Forget Us!) Group, which includes Barra Polytechnic and Brideshead College Berkshire (the smallest private HE institution and the last to retain corporal punishment as both a disciplinary tool and a method of assessment).
Sutcliffe College Oxford is also a member, but only because their principal accidentally joined the wrong break-out group at a Universities UK "Vicars and Tarts" party in 2003.
Expect to hear more from the DFU, which is at the forefront of developments in knowledge transfer and entrepreneurship. Brideshead's vice-chancellor, for example, recently pulled off a coup by securing 30 per cent of the funding for his new joint medical school on the TV show Dragons' Den (he did have the advantage of coming on after a couple trying to sell biodegradable golf-trolleys).
If all else fails, you could do worse than a six-month job share in Berkshire, perhaps?