As four British universities prepare to join an international network, Simon Midgley and Geoff Maslen examine university links and the feasibility of a world super league of institutions.
Education secretary Gillian Shephard likes them, America has had them for years. Elite university groups are under discussion in Britain and catching on worldwide, although countries differ in their attitudes to university league tables.
Whispers of university superleagues are ruffling some feathers in the groves of academe.
Earlier this month Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, hinted that she favoured the idea of research being restricted to a handful of "Ivy League" British universities.
The following day it was announced that four British universities are to be founder members of an international superleague of Western research and teaching institutions which will set up research and student exchange networks.
Glasgow, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Birmingham are to join Universitas 21, which will also include universities in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.
Alan Gilbert, vice chancellor of the University of Melbourne, who is behind the initiative, says he wants membership of Universitas 21 to be restricted to universities that are alike in their commitment to broad-based research and teaching.
All will have a high degree of "under- lying functional similarity", be comparable organisationally, and have sufficient resources to conduct research and teaching of "demonstrable international quality" over a significant range of disciplines and programmes.
"What is envisaged is a new kind of international association to meet the needs of a more ubiquitously international higher education environment," he said. "The Universitas 21 group, as a microcosm of the 'invisible college', will be able to translate peer review into systematic, best-practice systems, procedures and services for its members. The result will be better - and more credible - quality assurance."
Earlier this year Professor Gilbert announced plans to introduce inter- national benchmarking in all his university's faculties through the cooperation of some of the world's leading universities. He said then he wanted Melbourne to "play the quality game in a higher league by working systematically with a cluster of kindred universities".
Australia will be represented by the universities of Melbourne, New South Wales and Queensland. New Zealand's University of Auckland is also a member as are Canada's McGill, Toronto and British Columbia universities.
So is Universitas 21 - the 21 referring to the 21st century and universitas evoking the long history of institutions and their original medieval guild-like structure - the face of the future? Many universities have international, indeed global, reputations across a wide range of disciplines - Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Oxford, for example - but they are not linked together on an institutional basis.
There are links between departments and faculties which share a mutual interest in the same areas of research, but on an institutional level universities are funded differently, work in differing political contexts and often have a very different set of intellectual and institutional interests.
There are already several distinct groupings of UK universities which are regarded by some as elitist attempts to differentiate themselves from other institutions in a mass higher education system.
The Russell Group of vice chancellors from 17 universities brings together institutions with, for the most part, medical schools that are keen to protect their research interests. The group consists of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, the London School of Economics, University College London, Warwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol, Leeds, Southampton, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham, Liverpool and Glasgow.
Another grouping, the 94 Group, aims to prove that smaller universities can also do excellent research. This includes Warwick, the London School of Economics, Lancaster, Sussex, York, Durham, Exeter, Essex, East Anglia, Bath, Reading and Surrey. Publicly both groups would deny that they constitute embryonic university superleagues. They would say that they are there to ensure that research funding is not dissipated among universities with poor research records at the expense of established research universities.
But Gareth Williams, head of the centre of higher education studies at the Institute of Education, says there are some signs that the pressures of competing for international research money could be beginning to create a movement towards international groupings of similar institutions.
The Russell Group, he says, might be a symptom of these underlying pressures. In big science and engineering and to a certain extent in social sciences, universities are competing with each other for international research funds. In joint university bids for European Union funding, universities would tend to seek comparable institutions in other countries as partners.
Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University, says that there is some truth in the notion of an emerging superleague. But he says that it is departments that are competing internationally rather than institutions, and some universities have more top departments than others.
Universities that have been in existence longer will have had more time to amass endowments, acquire better facilities, build reputations, attract brighter students and do better quality work.
However, this does not mean that rigid divisions exist between institutions. "In some ways it is not so different from the Football League in that you have your Wimbledons that were nowhere, that were not even League teams 30 years ago, who are now in the top three or four. Then there are the Prestons and the Brightons that were once something and are now foundering. Reputations are fluid. If a university starting from a lower base can carry itself through to the forefront of a particular area then good luck to it."
Alan Swanson, pro rector of Imperial College, says that his college thinks of itself in a world context. "We compare ourselves with people across the world at least as much as with people in this country. We are a member of more than one European network either concerned with science and technology or particular leading universities." Imperial is a member of the Leuven Network which consists of institutions such as the Technical University of Trondheim, Delft University of Technology, Aachen University and several grandes ecoles in France. It is also a member of a North American association that links Brown University, Waterloo University and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Imperial, he added, was competing internationally for research money from multinational companies, foreign governments and international institutions. In 1993/94 Imperial's research income was some Pounds 59 million of which Pounds 10.5 million came from overseas.
Gordon Conway, vice chancellor of Sussex University, is sceptical of the university superleague idea. He is not aware that Oxford and Cambridge have any particular institutional links with Harvard, Yale or Princeton. There are international links, he adds, between centres of excellence in particular research areas or disciplines in universities throughout the world. Sussex's constitutional centre is linked for example to Ohio State University. Sussex has also won three Nobel Prizes for chemistry, the most recent last month.
Ivor Crewe, vice chancellor of Essex University, says that to want to protect research funding through groupings like the Russell Group and the 94 Group is not the same as saying that there should be a superleague of universities. "I doubt if there are more than three vice chancellors in the country who will support Gillian Shephard's recently published views on the desirability of effectively restricting research to a small number of universities. A lot of universities support selectivity but this is not the same as concentration; they support giving funds to those research groups that show the highest quality and promise, to the best departments wherever they may be."
In Britain, he adds, the Government has more than doubled the number of universities. But it did not want to increase public spending, so it was now asking itself the question "how can we double the number of universities without spending any money on them and retain Britain's international research position?
"The answer it has come up with is 'oh well we will create this superleague of universities and we will give all our research money to those universities and the rest will all become teaching institutions'."
The second argument is whether there should be a domestic ivy league of institutions linked to ivy leagues in other countries. Professor Conway says no, because he sees no sign of any existing institutional links. There are only faculty links based on a mutual interest in the same fields.
Joel Moses, provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that while there are many contacts between the 50 or 60 world-class US public and private universities, there are no institutional relationships with European universities, between for example the Sorbonne and MIT. There are contacts but these are on a faculty level between professors. But he said he would be surprised if we did not see the growth of mega-universities based on the Sorbonne, Oxford, Cambridge and several US universities. These would have spheres of influence in various regions of the world where they will engage in education, research and training programmes with emerging second and third world countries. But such mega-universities would not necessarily cooperate with each other. "We may cooperate in future but we are competing at present."
Georgia Nugent, associate provost at Princeton University, says: "At a recent international conference of Australian, Swedish and American academics people were speaking about the way there is a mission among research universities which is becoming internationalised. For several decades now the academic community has been an international one. If you are in the leading rank of your academic field your peers are international peers really. In many ways we would have more in common say with a Cambridge and an Oxford than with a community college in the US."
She has not, however, seen much evidence of international institutional cooperation between top universities, though Princeton's president Harold Shapiro has said that Princeton needs to begin to think of itself in a more international dimension.
Roger Needham, pro vice chancellor of Cambridge University, says: "If anybody said let's get together and have a club of high-class universities, like the football league, the world's best 16 universities, the idea would soon be shot down because it would give rise to a great deal of aggravation when you decided somebody was number 17.
"The circumstances of operation of the top universities in different countries are sufficiently different that they do not have a great deal in common. We are by temperament averse to sharing initiatives, particularly ones which upset others."
The Top US Universities
The Top British Universities
1 Cambridge 2 Oxford 3 Imperial 4 Edinburgh 5 St Andrews 6 LSE 7 York 8 Warwick 9 Bristol 10 Nottingham Source: The Times
The Top Canadian Universities
1 Queen's 2 University of British Columbia 3 McMaster 4 McGill 5 Toronto Source: Maclean's Directory