At a 'natural' time, chief of 1994 Group bids farewell

Members of 'the sensible group' must now decide on its direction, Paul Marshall tells Simon Baker

January 5, 2012

Credit: Alamy
Choice topics: the 1994 Group helped make the 'student experience' central to discussions about higher education

After 18 months of ferocious lobbying and jockeying for position among the university mission groups, most - if not all - will be thinking carefully about how they and their members fit into the new world order of higher education.

For the 1994 Group, the opportunity for a strategic rethink has been brought into sharp focus by the departure of its executive director, Paul Marshall, who leaves the organisation at the end of this week.

Since his appointment as its first executive director in January 2006, Mr Marshall has led a bid to raise the profile of the UK's small research-intensive universities and bring them out of the shadow of the Russell Group - while at the same time avoiding too much shouting from the rooftops.

"The Department [for Business, Innovation and Skills] often refers to us as 'the sensible group'. That is no criticism of anyone else; it is just that we've never sought headlines," he told Times Higher Education in an interview ahead of his departure.

"There are very few times that you are going to see us jumping up and down and shouting about things. But ultimately if it means we get things done quietly behind the scenes, then that's no bad thing."

Under his leadership, the group has concentrated on building a brand. It has also lobbied government ministers through its own research papers and by creating platforms for the sector to debate issues.

The clearest example is the group's focus on improving the "student experience" - a topic it first brought to the attention of the sector via a policy paper in 2007.

The term has since entered common parlance among politicians, university heads and the media.

"As terrible in some ways as the White Paper may be," Mr Marshall said, the document had at least acknowledged the importance of informed student choice - an issue at the heart of the 1994 Group's strategy during his tenure, he argued.

Warts and all

Discussing government plans to require the sector to provide more course information to students, Mr Marshall said: "When all this information becomes public, there will be a lot of not very good stuff that comes out about our members. But the point is that overall the passionate belief we have is that students should be empowered to properly make informed choices."

Mr Marshall, who is stepping down to take up the role of chief executive of the Association of Business Schools, said the realisation of goals he had helped set for the 1994 Group almost six years ago added to the sense that now was a "natural" time to leave.

Meanwhile, the 1994 Group, which has begun to look for a successor while Mr Marshall's old team oversees the interregnum, finds itself at an important crossroads.

"The group itself needs a new strategic plan. It needs to make decisions about where it's going, and where its members want it to go," he said. "It may be that [when] looking at that crossroads, members start saying: 'Well, [the previous approach was] very nice but actually we want to be on the front page of the newspaper every week or on the Today programme,' which isn't really what we've done."

In general, he thinks that most mission groups will face growing pressure to create more of a brand identity to rival that of the Russell Group and attract the attention of more students at home and abroad.

Mission groups remain useful

Mr Marshall also does not rule out the possibility of a fracture in the 1994 Group's membership in the coming years: after all, the universities of Exeter and Durham have sought Russell Group membership in the past.

However, he is confident that the organisation will survive, given the regularity with which it receives applications from institutions to join its ranks.

"If the Russell Group did expand, I wouldn't say that automatically means that the 1994 Group would disappear," he said.

Moreover, he believes that predictions of the demise of the mission groups as the sector diversifies are likely to be premature.

"These groups have hung together over quite a big period of change. We shouldn't underestimate how different the sector is now from what it was in 1994, and how much the groups themselves have adapted and changed," Mr Marshall said.

Meanwhile, speaking of his new role, he said he was attracted by the challenge of helping the Association of Business Schools - which has a diverse group of members and affiliates stretching from Russell Group institutions to for-profit independents - to engage more with government policymaking.

"I don't think the UK's business schools are having the kind of impact on policy that they could or should have. There aren't enough highly qualified, intelligent academics coming forward and assisting with...policy development," he said.

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