Divisions in academia could lead to the loss of its negotiating power, Anna Fazackerley reports.
The battle lines in UK academia are shifting, with the Campaigning for Mainstream Universities group facing potential mutiny and research-focused institutions allying themselves more closely, an investigation by The Times Higher has revealed.
The news that the Government was keen to ditch the research assessment exercise, announced in last month's Budget, underlined both how diverse the sector's interests could be and how important it was for university vice-chancellors to make their voices heard in Westminster.
Tellingly, the RAE policy change was said to have been sparked by a few influential vice-chancellors privately bending the ear of the Treasury.
One vice-chancellor said: "With the RAE we saw a number of institutions freelancing and going to the Government with a minority view (that the forthcoming RAE should be scrapped). Of course, the Government then realised this didn't have majority backing. That isn't good."
Such rebellion is becoming increasingly common.
CMU, the modern universities' group, is facing dissent in its ranks. One university head said: "I keep picking up resentment from people who are quite prominent in that part of the sector. They are distancing themselves from the group publicly and privately."
Sheffield Hallam University confirmed this week that it had resigned its membership of the CMU. Other universities in the group are said to be considering following suit.
The CMU, under the chairmanship of Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, is accused of being overly negative and of presenting a misleadingly unanimous view on contentious issues such as the RAE.
Diana Green, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam, said: "On occasion, it would be fair to say that the chair has articulated views that were not shared by all members."
She added: "What started to make me feel very uncomfortable was the fact that the articulation of these views to the media and to ministers was not constructive; it was moaning. I thought the point of any interest group was to present what one was good at."
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the CMU, was quick to deny this. She argued that her group had been very influential in steering government policy.
She said: "The last thing the CMU has done is be negative. On the contrary, we have sought to celebrate the diversity of the student profile and the considerable achievements of our universities."
Vice-chancellors outside the group said this week that they did not expect the CMU to survive.
Some speculated that Sir Howard Newby, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England and former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, might want to unite the more aspirant modern universities in a new group.
This dissent has served to bolster the confidence of the Russell Group and the 94 Group, which represent most of the research-led universities.
Both groups are attempting to reinvent themselves to increase their influence. Both are anxious to become much more than an informal talking shop for university chiefs. The two factions have been working together on shared concerns, such as the RAE and a post-qualifications applications system, and they intend to stand together on other issues in the future.
Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London and chair of the Russell Group, said: "I have a joint meeting with the 94 Group this evening actually, where we will talk about the RAE. I would say the working relationship between the two groups has never been better."
But the Budget announcements about the RAE have not proved plain sailing for the Russell Group. Some of its members, such as the London School of Economics, are concerned that a metrics-based system might be introduced, which could lead to their income being slashed. But other members such as Imperial College London could stand to profit from it.
The group has yet to formulate a joint position and will attempt to hammer one out in May.
In contrast, the 94 Group quickly decided on a response, which raised concerns about metrics and called for the 2008 RAE to go ahead. One vice-chancellor in this group said: "The fact that we have played a big role in this debate has been very important for our profile and confidence.
The Russell Group can be horribly divided, but we all get on."
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University and chairman of the 94 Group, said: "All the key people in Westminster have wanted to talk to us about this. I think this debate has shown that both our group and the Russell Group have a lot of influence."
Galvanised by this success, the 94 Group is planning to relaunch and is devising a strategy based on the unique selling points of its universities.
Insiders say that other universities have approached the 94 Group wanting to join. But they say that the group is likely to be very particular about who it admits.
Meanwhile, the heads of some universities who have so far declined to join any group are now thinking hard about the possibility of collaborating.
The so-called Non-aligned Group met this week to discuss the potential for a new alliance on certain key issues.
Discussion of such allegiances have been triggered, in part, by questions over the future of Universities UK, the umbrella group for vice-chancellors.
After months of resentment and political manoeuvring, many university chiefs now agree that UUK needs to stay. Yet many are adamant that its role should be restricted.
The Russell Group, which was said to be keen to pull out of the organisation altogether six months ago, is now back on board. But it is guarded.
Professor Grant said: "They can usefully represent issues where our interests coincide across the sector, such as visas. But in other areas such as research selectivity there are very different views and it doesn't make sense to take a sector-wide stance."
This complicated and evolving battle map, with different institutions uniting on different issues, may be an inevitable consequence of an emerging higher education market.
But university heads are uncomfortably aware that they may be muddying the political waters.
Professor Green said: "The more complex the map gets, the more the Government can say we aren't speaking with one voice. And the more they can ignore us."