In his first interview as University Alliance chair, John Latham, vice-chancellor of Coventry University, told Times Higher Education he was sure “we might end up with other mission groups as we go forward”, adding that in the current higher education landscape, institutions were “looking to come together in groups”.
His words look even more astute in the context of whispers from various corners of the sector that the 1994 Group may be re-formed, three years after it came to its “natural end point”.
THE contacted a number of institutions that were formerly members of the group, all of whom said they had no knowledge of an attempt to reconstitute the organisation. But what benefits might a 1994 Group comeback bring for potential members? And what might it mean for the sector as a whole?
Former 1994 Group member the University of East Anglia said in a statement that it “has always found great benefit in working in partnership with other institutions with similar outlooks, both in the UK and globally”.
Alex Bols, deputy chief executive of mission group Guild HE and chief executive of the 1994 Group at the time it split, said if the rumours were true, higher education should “welcome it as there has been a missing voice in the sector”.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, was even more explicit. “It was sad it ever closed and a new group for those dual-intensive universities that focus equally on teaching and research would be very welcome,” he said.
Mr Hillman added that current policy initiatives, especially the teaching excellence framework (TEF), provide the perfect environment for such a group to flourish.
THE’s “mock TEF" analysis proved there was a group of non-Russell Group institutions that could receive a huge reputational boost from the exercise. The benchmarked top 10 of the mock TEF included four universities that had been members of the 1994 Group: Loughborough University (ranked top in the THE exercise overall), the University of Surrey, the University of Bath and Lancaster University. There were no Russell Group universities in the benchmarked top 10.
“I always thought the 1994 Group’s failing was that they tried to ape the Russell Group too much, [leaving] them with no distinctive voice,” Mr Hillman said. “Actually, they do have a distinctive voice; they’re doing something a little bit different.
“Those universities like Loughborough, their moment has come because you’ve got a government that wants to reward universities that do good teaching.”
In a world where students and parents scrutinise universities for good tuition, employability and student satisfaction – all key TEF metrics – these institutions could be a new group force, Mr Hillman argued. Policymakers also welcome mission groups, he suggested, because they prefer to listen to partnerships of institutions, rather than “disparate universities acting individually”.
“People in the wider world don’t understand the degree to which civil servants think through mission groups,” continued Mr Hillman, formerly an adviser to Lord Willetts in his time as universities and science minister. “They’re very often new to the topic because they change jobs so frequently. So when they’re sitting there thinking ‘what does the sector think about X?’, they don’t phone up 130 universities and ask each one. But they do phone up the mission groups.”
He added that “a mission group doing its job is genuinely speaking on behalf of a number of universities. It works from the university end too. It means you’re a little bit less lonely, running your university in your part of the country, because you can have these conversations with like-minded institutions and compare notes.”
Support for the idea of a re-formed 1994 Group is not universal, however. Mark E. Smith, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, told THE he would be hesitant about submitting his institution for membership.
“From a Lancaster point of view, the fast-moving nature of the sector means that the concept of monolithic mission groups looks outdated,” he said. “Lancaster has many partnering/group interactions where it makes sense that we take them on a case-by-case basis.”
One weakness to be addressed if the 1994 Group ever re-formed would be its name, often regarded as bland and failing to match the strong brand achieved by the Russell Group moniker (named after the central London hotel where its vice-chancellors met).
But it is not just in the context of the TEF where some believe a re-formed 1994 Group could have an impact. Some in the sector see Theresa May's government as being disposed to regarding Russell Group membership as the marker of a top-quality institution, particularly when it comes to policy on overseas students. Since Ms May became prime minister, the government has announced a pilot scheme easing visa rules for master's students at just four institutions – the universities of Bath, Cambridge and Oxford and Imperial College London. Three of those are Russell Group members.
“The new government is quite happy to pick a subset of leading universities and say you can have slightly different migration rules,” Mr Hillman said. He suggested an imagined conversation at the Home Office: “‘OK, we get all the sector’s complaints about student migration; let’s liberalise the rules for the Russell Group and tighten them up for everybody else’. The 1994 Group could be a very strong, powerful bulwark against that sort of damaging and risky behaviour.”