Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Hail the Phoenix

Joni Mitchell captured it perfectly: 'you don't know what you've got til it's gone'. The repercussions of the demise of the 1994 Group will, I think, be felt for some time yet. Whilst I took plenty of sideswipes at the 1994 Group in its last, doddery years - it was such an easy target, wasn't it? - the gap that it's left is a significant one for the UK's higher education sector.

In essence, we've now got a one brand market place. The Russell Group is the Acme Corporation. It is GUM. I've heard rumours that the Russell Group was not exactly passive in the self destruction of the 94 Group last summer. If this is true, it should be ashamed of the part in played. Whilst all is fair in love, war and the feuding of mission groups, having one citadel of research is not good for the long term health of the UK's research ecosystem.

I've made no bones about believing that increasing funding concentration is a Bad Thing, and  I hope that HEFCE sticks to its guns and 'fund excellent research in all its forms wherever it is found'. I think it would be incredibly detrimental to the whole sector if we moved to a situation where we had a divide between 'research' and 'teaching' universities. It would be harmful to the early careers of many academics, but also to the experience of students. Research should inform teaching, and teaching inform research. Having a strong research ecosystem across the sector is good for the UK as a whole.

However, to ensure its survival this ecosystem needs to be protected. Someone needs to fight the corner of the non-RG universities. Someone needs to speak for the majority. I think its disingenuous - or just plain stupid - to think that individual universities can speak as loudly or be heard as widely as a collective voice.  In the weeks that have followed the closure of the 1994 Group a number of possible candidates have been suggested, such as Universities UK (UUK), University Alliance, and even the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA). 

I don't think any of these are appropriate. Both UUK and ARMA should be looking after the interests of all in the sector, both non-RG and RG. The University Alliance has a particular mission in supporting and encouraging innovation within it member institutions. What we need instead is either to get rid of all mission groups and just have a single body speaking on behalf of the whole UK HE sector, or a body who can safeguard the smaller research intensive universities. The former is never going to happen; the RG brand has become too useful to its members. The latter isn't going to happen anytime soon either: too many fingers have been burnt, I think, in the sad end of the 1994 Group. The idea behind the Senate Group was a good one, a positive one, but it was ultimately scuppered by delays and self interest.

What we are left with, for the time being, is the RG, and a patchwork of regional groupings, from N8, M5, GW4 and Kent's own Eastern ARC. These do, I think, offer a solution for the moment. They allow the member universities to be more than the sum of their parts, and to spark interesting, interdisciplinary collaborations. They may even, in time, lead to a more 'federalised' sector. But there's always a danger that 'federalised' might lead to 'factionalised', with inter-regional scrapping and the building of walls between the groups.

Despite what some say, and despite the silly playground politics they engender, I think 'mission groups' do have their place. Or rather, in a world where some belong to a powerful mission group, the rest need to have the advocacy offered by one. Let's hope that a phoenix rises from the ashes of the 1994 Group. And soon.

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