When the officers of our Students Union came to talk to me last week I was struck, not for the first time, by the clarity of their vision and by the significance of their questions. Not for them that concern with process and procedures rather than outcomes which can mark discourse within a university community. Instead, a refreshing directness.
What, they asked, is the "Russell Group", and how can Manchester's membership be reconciled with the university's policy of being open to all on the basis of ability and by no other criteria?
Setting aside my puzzlement as to why a story more than a year old had suddenly become newsworthy -- why do these things happen? -- I explained why a group of institutions to which research is central, both in terms of mission and indeed in terms of revenue, felt the need to gather together from time to time. The purpose is simply that of meeting any challenge to the role which many universities play in research and development, and of ensuring that the volume and distribution of funding protect the UK's strengths.
So it didn't involve, as they had read, abandoning national pay scales or quitting the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service? Neither of these topics, I assured them, had ever been raised at any Russell Group meeting that I had attended, and were unconnected with the group's central objective.
But, I was asked, would membership of this group, with its focus on research, be incompatible with the goal of maintaining both the quality of what we provide for our students and the standards of our degrees?
How often these two simple concepts are confused -- and how often they are presented as though they are alternatives instead of essentially complementary. All of us are responsible for ensuring that what we provide for our students, given our mission and the resources available to us, is of the highest possible quality. That the evaluation of this quality, in terms of a whole range of parameters, is an invaluable source of information to intending students, and those who guide them, is surely now widely accepted.
But if these quality judgements are to be summarised in one word and departments ranked in a single league table, then, sure as eggs, they will become confused with standards, and the whole exercise will be -- is being -- irretrievably distorted. This must, and can so easily, be avoided.
But at the same time, those institutions which wish to maintain traditional academic standards -- and this, of course, includes many universities not presently within the Russell Group -- must and will set out to do so, and will be judged accordingly. Degrees of a high standard, delivered at a high quality, must continue to be widely available.
And that, I said to our students, is how being a member of a group of institutions committed to excellence in research is entirely consonant with being open to students on the basis of ability alone. We must be explicit about our curricula and teaching methods, be honest about what we are seeking to offer students and be clear about the standards we require and are seeking to achieve. Then we must accept others will judge whether we are succeeding in achieving excellence in delivering these. Those who set the highest standards have to be particularly sure of the quality of their provision.
Martin Harris is vice chancellor of Manchester University.