Civic universities are losing out in league tables, but a push to re-establish city identities could help to shake things up.
I'm a child of the "home counties", a name that itself speaks volumes about London's dominance of English life. I've always felt the city's pull: at three years old, I was entranced by cavernous, noisy Paddington station.
Yet I've always thought that large parts of England (and not just the Celtic nations) not only despised but avoided the south and its ways.
Reading Michael Shattock's interesting new book on managing universities, I was therefore surprised by the "southerness" of his list of top performers.
Of course, league tables are highly imperfect; but these summary tables, which average out multiple lists for different points in time, are both interesting and consistent in their messages.
Looking at the success stories, Shattock remarks that the "biggest surprise is the absence from the list of so many of the civic universities". I'd go further: it is remarkable that not one of the civic universities has been a star, shooting into or up the top ten. Obviously not everyone can be top of a list. But wouldn't you expect to find at least one of the universities of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and their ilk among the recent winners?
Before the wrath of multiple vice-chancellors descends on me, let me put this in proportion. These are fine universities with Russell Group membership, large research incomes and some superlative departments. Yet, while none of the civic foundations sits securely in these tables' top divisions, Warwick and York universities do. Others among the 1960s foundations are way down the list. So there is clearly room for movement: indeed, some of the "civic" group have clearly lost rank over the years.
Shattock has lots of sensible things to say about running universities well: the drawback of high-profile managerial styles, generating profit from non-state income, getting good data to departmental decision-makers.
But here the differences between institutions are individual. They're not determined by the type of university you are. One problem may be that civic universities are large - on average two or three times the size of the 1960s cohort - and have a big investment in science, engineering and medicine. These are exactly the areas where successful research teams and concentrated research funding seem to be most self-perpetuating, and where they very visibly go head-to-head with London and Oxbridge, and compete for a shrinking base of good applicants. While Warwick and York are pretty "scientific" as 1960s universities go, the civics' proportion of science and engineering students is no greater than the national average.
I think that something else is at work. One tempting explanation is the triumph of southern culture. The 1960s universities, with their cathedral-city greenfield sites, were a conscious rejection of the grime and grind of the industrial cities - or, as these cities might put it, of the enterprise and hard work that enriched this country. Looked at that way, ancient and beautiful York becomes an honorary southerner and the success stories of the late 20th century reflect students (and staff), buying into the same values. On the other hand, everyone now knows that Warwick is really in unglamorous Coventry and, for beauty, a campus such as Birmingham's has it over most later foundations any day.
So the problem may be slightly different. University winners do, I think, need a clear image; but this must be true to what they are. You can't just pull some brand image from the air. And civic universities are precisely that -universities of their cities. Provincial cities have been sidelined and diminished by the relentless centralisation of English power. In the US, states are real political entities, with revenue-raising powers. Some (Wisconsin, Texas, California) have made it a priority to build up their state universities, while others made different choices. The same was once true in Germany.
Here, it is the cities, and not the now fashionable "regions", that still have genuine identity as centres for local life. There is no reason why, in principle, an English city couldn't be committed to its university in ways that go beyond welcoming students for the money they spend on rents and on the club scene. It would mean returning power to local government, which is the reverse of current policy, so I'm not holding my breath. But allowing the rebirth of our cities' identities could, among other things, give the university pecking order a new and productive shake-up.
Alison Wolf is professor of management at King's College London.