The Russell Group of top research universities this week opened its doors to a new member for the first time since its inception at London's Russell Hotel in 1994.
The twentieth member of the group will be Queen's University Belfast. The group also signalled its intention to boost its influence in Whitehall by confirming the appointment of Wendy Piatt, deputy director in the Prime Minister's strategy unit, as its director-general.
Dr Piatt, former head of education at the Institute of Public Policy Research and a key proponent of top-up fees, will take up the post in January. She said she would help the group become more proactive in setting, rather than responding to, the policy agenda. "I want to make sure it becomes the source of constructive-thought leadership," she said.
Fees, research funding, innovation and the role of universities in civic society would be among the key issues, she said. "It would be good to see the Russell Group as the broker between Government and academe."
Peter Gregson, vice-chancellor of Queen's, said that the invitation to join the elite group was "tremendous news".
"It means recognition of the efforts put in by a lot of hard-working staff.
Most importantly, it helps create those national and international connections that are so vital in a world-class university," he said.
Professor Gregson, who became vice-chancellor in August 2004, said the university would play a full role in the group.
"Because of our geographical position, it is sometimes easy for Queen's to be regarded as being on the periphery but in many areas we are very much central," he said.
He is overseeing investment of more than £250 million in staff, students and infrastructure. Projects include a £45 million library - a landmark building for Northern Ireland - and a £20 million investment in sport and the student union.
Malcolm Grant, Russell Group chairman, said that the latest developments were "evidence of the determination of the group to lead in the representation of the interests and values of the large research-intensive universities".
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