Top British universities are to break ranks with the rest of the nation's higher education institutions by setting their own policy on issues such as academic pay and student tuition fees.
The move could see the Russell Group, representing the vice-chancellors and principals of 19 of the country's biggest and best research and teaching institutions, introduce policies on preferential pay to attract top academics. It would also campaign for higher student fees to reflect the quality of learning at member institutions.
The move has angered other vice-chancellors, but the group is worried that its concerns over issues such as pay, fees and research funding are not best served by continuing to abide by policy set by Universities UK, which represents all UK universities and some other higher education institutions.
Russell Group chairman Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, said: "What tends to happen in UUK is that we get lowest common denominator policy, and we have been held back to an extent by this in the past.
"There are good working relationships with UUK, but inevitably there are differences on some issues."
Professor Sterling said the group had no intention of leaving UUK, which, he said, still had a role in promoting policy applicable to all institutions and campaigning on universal issues such as copyright law.
But the group has appointed its own executive committee, effectively a policy-steering group, and is advertising for a chief executive. It has no plans to hold annual conferences, but two years it ago started holding annual "awayday" meetings.
Geoffrey Copland, outgoing president of the Coalition of Modern Universities representing the former polytechnics, said: "I think it is unfortunate if the Russell Group goes down this road. I think the CMU will continue to work on the principle that the university sector as a whole is stronger working together."
The group is distinct from the bulk of the sector. Comprising about a sixth of the total number of universities, it receives about a third of all public money going to British higher education. It wins 60 per cent of all research council funding, and its combined teaching grant is about a quarter of the country's as a whole.
Professor Sterling said that one of the clear differences between the Russell Group and many other universities was the need to compete internationally on academic pay. He said the new national academic pay spine could cause difficulties.
"Assimilation of the pay spine will be an issue for us," he said. "It means we cannot, without clear justification, pay someone who falls on a clear pay spine point more. We will need something more formal in our job adverts than 'salary negotiable'."
He also said there was a need for the group to gather anonymous data on academic pay to ensure that members were paying the going rates to keep them internationally competitive.
Most Russell Group members would like to have seen the cap for top-up fees, to be introduced in 2006, set at £5,000 not the government-imposed £3,000. Professor Sterling said the higher figure could help create a genuine market where universities, including many in the Russell Group, felt able to discount their courses.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of UUK, said: "We work well with the Russell Group - as with other groups - and the new chairman, Mike Sterling, and I have discussed how this close involvement will continue.
"UUK's lobbying on behalf of the whole sector achieved a good settlement for research - an area of particular interest to the Russell Group - and we will continue to work in a way that serves the whole sector."
The Russell Group comprises Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol, Southampton, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham, Liverpool, Glasgow and Cardiff universities and University College London, Imperial College, the London School of Economics and King's College London.