The new motto for the marketplace: all for one and none for all

Mission groups are bearing the brunt of institutions' growing need for a strong individual identity, find Julian Beer and Wendy Purcell

November 15, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole

An article in Times Higher Education in March last year predicted that increasing competition in higher education would lead to the disintegration and realignment of university mission groups.

The forecast was based on a study our institution, Plymouth University, had been involved in - the Enterprising Universities project, which analysed how England's higher education institutions were positioning themselves in the market.

In recent weeks and months, that prediction has turned out to be correct: mission groups seem to be dissolving before our very eyes.

The 1994 Group of smaller research universities has lost seven members since the summer. The universities of Durham, Exeter, York and Queen Mary have left to join the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, while the universities of Surrey, Bath and St Andrews are the latest to announce their departure.

Despite the public focus on departures from the 1994 Group, Million+, which represents a group of newer universities, has been the hardest hit. It has lost eight members since 2010, including three to the University Alliance, the mission group to which our own university belongs.

So why all the movement - and does it matter? The spate of recent departures from mission groups is a sign that competition is intensifying in the sector. Institutions are breaking away from groups and realigning as well as attempting to set themselves apart from the herd.

Mission groups were originally formed on the basis of common interests with the aim of influencing policy. Given this, the universities within each group could be expected to have aligned individual missions - prioritising research, or learners, or enterprise, or work with business. Our study, led by the universities of Plymouth and Teesside, found that universities identifying themselves as enterprise-focused institutions were, predominantly, members of the University Alliance group, while those prioritising research were usually found in the Russell Group or the 1994 Group.

But we also found that many members of mission groups were less clearly aligned and had less distinctive missions. Some 70 institutions found themselves in a crowded market space - a "red ocean" of fierce competition, where success was based primarily on climbing the league tables. These institutions were putting themselves at risk by trying to cover too many bases. With its mission statement of "fair to middling at everything", it is clear where THE's own Poppleton University would stand: its vice-chancellor should be warned that it is exactly in the centre of this perilous red ocean and that its strategic position is thus one of shark bait. While this positioning for the top half of this grouping based on competing on various indicators within league tables is fine and there will be winners, for those like Poppleton in the bottom half, without a distinctive mission and strategy, the risks are clear - they will lose by performing poorly in comparison with the others.

Institutions with more clearly differentiated and defined missions, in contrast, were located in far safer waters because they occupied a distinctive market space.

The movements we have seen recently within mission groups are not the only sign of upheaval. Since our study, 34 institutions have changed their mission statements - perhaps in recognition of the need to find a niche or distinctive space within the market. Mission statements are an outward articulation of what a university stands for, or of what it wishes to be seen as, so these changes suggest that institutions are feeling the need to more clearly articulate their "offer" in this new, more volatile environment.

Tellingly, when announcing its decision to leave the 1994 Group, the University of Bath said that the group did "not reflect the type of university we are". Some universities now seem to see their individual brands and identities as more important than allegiance to a particular group or maintaining a historical relationship.

With all the comings and goings, mission groups must be careful to protect their distinctive identities, too: if entry criteria become too wide, the institutions within them will have little in common and, as a result, lobbying will be less effective collectively with messaging less clear.

As individual academics and university staff, we might wonder why any of this matters - although some may be bemused or amused to see those who run our institutions engaged in a seemingly endless pursuit to position their universities within this new landscape.

The consequences, however, can be serious for all concerned. A clear and focused mission can be key to a university's success and, in the increasingly bloody fight for scarce financial resources and political support, potential students and policymakers will be examining the way universities portray and position themselves very closely.

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