The 1994 Group was on the verge of relaunching itself as “The Senate Group” with new members before a last-minute disagreement over the plan brought down the organisation, according to some in the sector.
Vice-chancellors from the 1994 Group’s 11 remaining members – the universities of East Anglia, Essex, Leicester, Sussex, Lancaster and Loughborough, plus Birkbeck, Goldsmiths, the Institute of Education, Royal Holloway and Soas (all University of London colleges) – issued a statement on 8 November announcing that the organisation had come to a “natural end point”.
Others, however, dispute that account. The 1994 Group – led by Michael Farthing, its chair and also vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, and Alex Bols, its executive director – had spent tens of thousands of pounds over the past 18 months looking at options to rebrand and relaunch itself, they claim.
Earlier relaunch plans are said to have reached advanced stages, only to be dropped when members failed to agree on the strategies – including one plan to rebrand the organisation as “The Rose Group” of “research oriented, student experience” universities.
The latest plan to relaunch as the Senate Group progressed even further, with the 1994 Group thought to have scheduled a launch at the Houses of Parliament on 11 November. At least three UK universities are said to have agreed to sign up as new members.
The University of Dundee confirmed it was among those in talks to join the group.
The relaunch plan was set to be given the final green light at a board meeting on 31 October, some in the sector suggest. However, one figure in the group is said to have insisted that more members be recruited before the relaunch.
According to this account, the prospect of another delay prompted the vice-chancellor of one member to announce that his institution would be leaving. That is said to have sparked the disintegration of the entire group, with the remaining members dismayed by a further departure on top of the eight since August 2012.
Sparks but no explosion?
Mark Fuller, who was communications director of the 1994 Group until December 2012 and is now associate director of Linstock Communications, said that during his time at the organisation, some members had wanted the group to say, “we are just like the Russell Group, we buy into their vision of a university and big, powerful, research-intensive elites”.
But others had argued for a distinctive identity, he added.
Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, denied that “some great explosion” had ended the group.
“It was much more…the members taking quite careful measure of what one could do in redirecting and reshaping what had been the 1994 Group, and whether that would meet the needs of all members,” he said.
Professor Acton added that, post-research excellence framework, he was “not at all sure the disbanding of the 1994 Group makes the current composition and indeed role of the Russell Group more stable. I think it may make it less stable.”
He argued that the Russell Group members were “extraordinarily disparate in their culture” and league table positions.
With only one group now representing research-intensive universities, he added, “you begin to question, by what process have these universities been selected?”
Over and out: have mission groups had their day?
The demise of the 1994 Group leaves just four major lobbying groups representing sections of the UK academy: the Russell Group, Million+, the University Alliance and GuildHE.
For Dominic Shellard (pictured left), vice-chancellor of De Montfort University, which pulled out of the University Alliance last month, the groupings are as irrelevant to modern institutions as “the old Warsaw Pact” because they impose a “false homogeneity” on members.
It is “stretching credibility” for the alliance to speak about the shared qualities of its members’ graduates, Professor Shellard said, because there was too little uniformity across a group with more than 20 universities.
The mission groups snipe at each other with the unwieldiness of First World War “armies that rumble across the battlefield”, he argued, and in doing so they “perplex staff, students and politicians”.
Professor Shellard said he would prefer De Montfort to be represented by Universities UK, which speaks for all universities, rather than subject ministers to lobbying from four different groups.
According to Julian Beer, pro vice-chancellor for regional enterprise at Plymouth University, mission groups “have had their day” because universities are now too diverse to be able to continue to claim a shared purpose.
Yet this need not spell the end of the current organisations, he added. Instead, they can work together as “positioning groups”, collaborating on shared research, for example, but without their members claiming to share the same mission.
There is “enough to keep them together”, Professor Beer said.
Looming over this debate is the power of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, widely perceived to wield the most clout in Whitehall. Michael Gove, the education secretary, has asked Russell Group members to oversee the content of the new A levels, for example.
To balance that influence, the rest of the sector must have its own representation, argued Libby Hackett, chief executive of the University Alliance, because otherwise “there’s a natural tendency” for politicians “to speak to the ancients and redbricks” alone. “The government would be in a less informed position” if it did so, she said.
The Russell Group has also managed to become a household word for “elite” or “top” universities – a brand as well as a mission group, Professor Beer argued.
“Realistically,” Ms Hackett acknowledged, “it’s not likely that other mission groups are going to develop a consumer brand like the Russell Group.”
So although many leading figures in the sector seem to believe that the idea of a homogeneous mission group is out of date, few expect the end of the 1994 Group to trigger a domino effect of similar collapses throughout the sector.
1994 Group: from start to finish
Established in same year as the Russell Group
Four more institutions join, including Queen Mary, University of London. Group membership now totals 20
The London School of Economics, also a Russell Group member, leaves the 1994 Group
University of Warwick, like the LSE before it, exits to focus on Russell Group membership
Institute of Education, University of London joins
Executive director Paul Marshall leaves. Replaced by Alex Bols in June
Universities of Durham, York, Exeter and Queen Mary, University of London announce they are leaving to join the Russell Group
University of Reading announces it is leaving. Group left with just 11 members
1994 Group disbands