The University Alliance could be in line for a name change, while members could share research assets and work collectively with business on course design in potential changes under its new chief executive.
Maddalaine Ansell arrived at the mission group in January from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, where she was latterly deputy director, international knowledge and innovation and before that wrote the government’s 2011 higher education White Paper.
Ms Ansell stressed that she wanted any changes to be member-led and that she was still visiting each of the group’s 20 member institutions.
But she said that the group would be examining “what our value proposition as a mission group is”. She added that the group was “thinking about a potential role” in areas such as “maybe asset sharing” and in bringing the group’s vice-chancellors together to “do some strategic thinking collectively”.
Ms Ansell continued that “because we’re so business facing”, there may be “space for us to work collectively with organisations like the CBI to make sure that…with business we’re designing the right kind of courses that set our graduates up”.
She also said that “I’m not sure that University Alliance as a title really sells us as strongly as we could be sold”, adding that “we need to find what is the thing that we can say we are the UK’s leading universities for”.
The higher education White Paper, which never resulted in a bill, saw Ms Ansell draw together the contributions of Civil Service colleagues working on individual policy areas.
“On the whole, I think it was the right thing to do,” she said of the policy shifts at the time of the White Paper.
“And I think that through the introduction of higher tuition fees money was safeguarded for the sector at a time when some other parts of government really did get cut quite heavily. However, it’s not finished.”
She said that in particular the “level playing field” on regulation between private providers and universities “needs to be sorted out” and postgraduate loans must be “finished off”.
Ms Ansell, who was a City lawyer for six years prior to joining BIS, said that after being a civil servant advising ministers, she was attracted by the prospect of “coming out of the shadows and saying what you think yourself”.
She described Alliance institutions as “up and coming universities, there is a real buzz about them”, as well as being “rooted in their regions”.
Ms Ansell said that the mission group would want a new government to increase the research budget while funding excellence wherever it is found. But given what she knows about the post-election scenarios for the BIS budget and cutting spending in each department, is increasing research funding an impossible goal?
“I’d much rather the trade-offs weren’t seen solely within BIS,” said Ms Ansell. “The science budget cuts across many, many policy areas. It’s in health, it’s in defence, it’s in transport, it would be a bit crazy to suggest that the right trade-off is between science, education, innovation [in BIS]…All of these things need to work together to strengthen the economy, not to just fight amongst each other.”