The UK’s Russell Group of 24 research-intensive universities frequently faces accusations of elitism and claims that it pursues its own agenda at the expense of the rest of the sector.
As evidence, the mission group’s critics might list the struggles of its members to improve their record on widening participation, or the organisation’s calls for research funding to be concentrated in large research universities.
But Tim Bradshaw, the Russell Group’s new chief executive, has argued that it is needed more now than ever before, and has claimed that the organisation’s lobbying activities are to the benefit of the sector as a whole.
“We might be elite but we are certainly not elitist,” Dr Bradshaw, formerly the Russell Group’s director of policy, told Times Higher Education. “And I don’t think [elitism] applies to any of our universities. Quite often you might think we are doing things that will just benefit us but that’s not true.”
As an example, Dr Bradshaw cited the mission group’s efforts to ensure that research technicians from the European Union retain their right to remain in the UK after Brexit.
“Hopefully we are doing things which will benefit the whole of the UK research and innovation research system. It’s not exclusive,” he said.
Dr Bradshaw takes the helm of the Russell Group at a time when the organisation’s role in the sector is under greater scrutiny than ever before.
Alongside the long-running complaints of elitism, Dr Bradshaw’s elevation to the top job came after his predecessor, Wendy Piatt, became embroiled in a media storm as a result of newspaper allegations that she had had an affair with António Horta-Osório, the chief executive of the Lloyds Banking Group.
An internal review found no evidence of wrongdoing related to travel and expenses claimed by Dr Piatt, who had met Mr Horta-Osório during a business trip to Singapore, but she said that she wished to “explore new challenges”.
And, while the Russell Group has been very effective as a marketing tool for student recruitment, there are arguments that it has “punched below its weight” on policy. For example, it arguably struggled to influence the development of England’s teaching excellence framework.
However, Dr Bradshaw rejected suggestions that the Russell Group had lost influence in recent years.
“We’re not asking for any special rules or free passes, we never have done,” he said. “But what we are saying is the rules need to be such that they work for us, and others will benefit from that too.
“There’s still room for the Russell Group to be influencing and leading the conversation in this way.”
Dr Bradshaw said that the future of the Russell Group was as a more open community, with a series of changes taking place since his arrival including the publishing of blog posts to explain the group’s activity, as well as the creation of a bigger profile on social media platforms.
In terms of the policy challenges ahead, Dr Bradshaw said that, while he felt “very positive” about the confirmation of settled status for European Union citizens post-Brexit, a key target was to establish “a deep and lasting relationship between the UK and the EU on science” that builds on existing research and innovation partnerships.
Dr Bradshaw also issued a warning over the changes to the policymaking environment, including the creation of the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation.
“My area of caution is that we have a system which now effectively splits up teaching and research: teaching excellence and research excellence frameworks; Department for Education, and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy,” he said.
“There is always a risk that those streams will unzip over time and become separate and parallel without properly interconnecting. I think that would be a real shame for the UK higher education system, because the way we see Russell Group universities is [as] not sitting in just one camp.”
Research, teaching and public engagement are all “part and parcel” of what the mission group’s members do as a holistic enterprise, he added.
“Having to report to different paymasters and different regulatory requirements which might not take reference across each other will, I think, be difficult and is something the government needs to consider very carefully.”