British universities are splintering into different lobby groups along the old binary divide, a move that threatens to undermine the body that in various forms has represented them since 1922.
Universities UK, which holds its annual residential meeting next week in Aberystwyth, is struggling to represent all its members' conflicting interests, especially in the area of research funding. Although all the groups stress that they work within the umbrella body, former polytechnics in particular are pushing for better representation and a higher profile.
The three key groups - the Russell Group, the 1994 Group and the Coalition of Modern Universities - are moving from informal gatherings to formal structures that include mission statements, paid secretariats and specific research agendas.
At its annual general meeting in May, the CMU, which is open to all post-1992 universities, although some have declined to join, decided to become more active. It has drafted a mission statement and appointed a secretary. In the past, it has relied largely on its chairman, Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University, to represent it.
Colin Matheson, the new secretary, who works three days a week for the CMU from Westminster, said: "Our members are clear that there are very specific things we need to fight for."
The group supports the government's 50 per cent participation target, more social inclusion and comparable experiences of higher education for all students. It says research is essential to all universities and must be part of core funding. It wants maintenance grants to be reinstated for poor students and any idea of charging real interest rates on student loans to be abandoned. "Unless grants are reinstated, our members believe that we are simply expanding the middle class in higher education," Mr Matheson said.
"There are clear differences between the CMU and the Russell Group," he said. "We are opposed to the idea of teaching-only institutions and fear that the current policy on research threatens to reimpose the binary divide." He said they also diverge on issues such as differential teaching funding, different pension schemes, unions and salary schemes.
The Russell Group has no official spokesman, but it is understood that it may in time develop a formal declaration of its purposes and objectives. The group, which is keen not to be seen as a body working against UUK, was set up in 1993 with 19 members to promote the interests of research-intensive universities. It grew out of informal meetings of vice-chancellors at London's Russell Hotel. It meets regularly, commissions influential discussion documents and boasts good political links.
A more formal grouping would have to decide whether new members should be admitted - and whether existing ones should be asked to leave. The vagueness of the criteria and the desire to keep the group small have so far allowed it to avoid these issues.
The group is chaired by Colin Lucas, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, and has a secretary at Liverpool University. Neither is paid and there are no fixed terms of office.
The 1994 Group, so called because it was founded in that year, has 17 members. Ivor Crewe, vice-chancellor of Essex University, was chair until last year.
"The defining criteria for (membership in) the group is to do well in the research assessment exercise and to be a small or medium-sized university," he said.
Some members, such as Warwick, are also members of the Russell Group. "Our interests are far more closely aligned with the Russell Group than with the CMU," Mr Matheson said.
But he pointed out that differences between the groups were not clearcut. "On top-up fees, for example, I think this is an issue that divides the Russell Group as much as it unites it." Mr Matheson said that the CMU had not ruled out top-up fees.
Professor Crewe does not believe that the different lobby groups weaken UUK.
"UUK represents more than 100 universities, and it is absurd to pretend that universities take the same view on all issues. These groups take that burden off UUK."
Mr Matheson said: "At the CMU we have our own needs and concerns, but all our members are members of UUK and we work within the framework of UUK."
A spokesperson for UUK pointed out that its board and strategy groups had members from all three groups and that it consulted with all three on policy issues.