UK mission groups set to dissolve in the 'red ocean'

Ties may fray as institutions trying to be all things suffer financially, study hints. Simon Baker reports

March 17, 2011

The university mission groups in the UK may start to disintegrate as institutions strive to stand out from the crowd in the increasingly competitive marketplace.

This prediction has been made by Julian Beer, pro vice-chancellor for regional research and enterprise at the University of Plymouth, who is helping to lead a sector-wide project on university strategy.

Professor Beer forecast a period of "realignment" for groupings such as Million+ and the 1994 and Russell groups, as vice-chancellors recognise that their membership does not reflect the new higher education landscape.

His predictions draw on the latest work of the Enterprising Universities project, being carried out by Plymouth in partnership with Teesside University, which is analysing how England's higher education institutions are positioning themselves in the market.

As Times Higher Education has reported, the study, which is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Leading Transformational Change programme, has identified about 70 universities that it believes are trying to cover too many bases and are spreading themselves too thinly.

Instead of trying to play to strengths in particular areas, they are attempting to cover multiple areas of teaching, research and third-stream activity.

According to Professor Beer and his colleagues, these institutions are likely to end up in a "red ocean" of competition where they will be more vulnerable to a drop-off in student demand or attempts by new higher education providers to undercut their prices.

Professor Beer said many of the institutions in the red ocean could be identified from a report released last year by the University and College Union, which listed a number of universities it claimed would be "at risk" from funding reforms.

However, it also included a number of other institutions that may not be at acute financial risk at present but could struggle in future if they did not have a distinctive strategy, he said.

Such institutions do not all belong to the same mission group, but come from a "patchwork" of organisations, suggesting that the groups themselves are becoming less relevant, Professor Beer added.

"Basically, it is not clear-cut any more. (Mission group members) are supposed to be aligned on mission but they are actually not. This suggests that there could be a realignment and that new groups will form with different objectives and strategies," he said.

Wendy Purcell, Plymouth's vice-chancellor, said that over the course of the project it had become clear that some universities had made a head start in leaping away from the pack with a distinctive strategy before the publication of the Browne Review.

This raised questions about whether mission groups still reflected the landscape of the sector, she said.

"Long-held assumptions about the building blocks of higher education will need to be reconsidered when the focus is increasingly on individual institutions."

The Plymouth and Teesside project is currently working with institutions in the US and Australia to draw insights from overseas markets on how universities should position themselves in a competitive market.

In its final conclusions, it hopes to offer advice and guidance on how universities can best develop a strategy to set them apart from competitors in a market the government hopes will be increasingly driven by student demand.

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