On a mission

Libby Aston, the University Alliance's new head, says the organisation must punch its weight in influencing policy

October 15, 2009

As the new head of the University Alliance, Libby Aston is clear that the mission group must develop a louder and more credible voice in the sector.

The former director of research at the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities said there was "an information void" in the part of the sector represented by the alliance - universities with a balanced portfolio of teaching, research and enterprise work.

"These universities need a voice," she said.

Ms Aston joined the organisation in September, having worked in higher education policy for nine years, including a spell with the Higher Education Funding Council for England. With 22 member institutions that teach more than 26 per cent of the country's students, the University Alliance is the UK sector's largest mission group. But it has been punching below its weight when it comes to influence, Ms Aston said.

Previously known as the Alliance of Non-Aligned Universities, the group still tends to be seen as an organisation for institutions that do not fit into any of the other mission groups. But Ms Aston said its members have far more in common than is generally perceived.

"Although the group is made up of pre- and post-1992 institutions, they are all research-focused universities that are equally strong in teaching."

Many are also large. Ms Aston said: "Six out of the ten largest UK universities are in the alliance. The University of the West of England is the largest provider of postgraduate education in the South West. Northumbria University educates the most postgraduates in the North East."

Professional education is another shared strength.

"Alan Milburn's report in July (which said that professions such as medicine and law were increasingly closed off to all but the wealthy) called for fairer access to the professions - we are providing that," Ms Aston added. "We are good at widening participation and getting people into graduate-level employment."

She pointed to Northumbria, where 91 per cent of its alumni hold graduate positions within three years of graduating.

Some have suggested that the predicted squeeze on higher education spending will hit universities with a balanced portfolio and without an obvious "mission" the hardest. Ms Aston admitted this happened in the last recession, but said the University Alliance was better prepared this time.

"Our members became a lot more competitive as a result," she said. "They are strong in engineering, law and design - areas that line up closely with the 'new economy'."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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