In February this year a research team from Loughborough University published a report on The New Regionalisation of UK Higher Education. New regionalisation might be a phenomenon unfamiliar to many, but the authors suggested that this would not be the case for much longer.
Describing it somewhat dramatically as "a silent revolution", the report maps out "a distinctly new regional geography of higher education…[that is] currently unfolding at an accelerated pace". More ominously for the majority of higher education institutions, the report says "Larger research-intensive universities are likely to gain most from the new regionalisation of higher education, and, moreover, are the only ones likely to gain significantly from the reorganisation."
Before exploring this point further we should look closely at what this silent revolution actually is. Perhaps one of the reasons it has been silent is that it is the confluence of two movements spread over almost two decades. That kind of timeframe doesn’t suggest revolution; it suggests a more natural process, though perhaps still short of an evolution.
The process began around the turn of the millennium with a clustering of northern universities. The initial reason for the formation of the White Rose Consortium (WRC) of Yorkshire universities—Leeds, Sheffield, and York—in 1997 wasn’t explicit, but it is the tightest of the new geographic groupings. It is perhaps this proximity that gives it coherence. Similarly in 2007 there was regional logic to the formation of the N8 partnership between York, Manchester, Durham, Lancaster, Liverpool, Newcastle, Leeds and Sheffield. The N8 pulled the centre of gravity away from the southern golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London.
However, the trend went into overdrive in a breathless 13-month period between August 2012 and September 2013. M5, GW4, SES and Eastern ARC all sprang up in this period. Some of these had their roots in Labour’s ill-fated Higher Education Regional Associations, which aimed to foster collaboration between higher education institutions and regional partners for the benefit of both.
A push by research councils was probably a more immediate cause of this series of collaborations. The Wakeham review in 2010 spurred on the drive, as did the research councils’ own dwindling resources. They encouraged higher education institutions to collaborate on doctoral training and to share equipment.
The report shows how diverse these regional groupings are. Some—such as the old man of the silent revolution, the WRC—have a strong sense of identity, are well known within the member institutions, and work closely together. The more recently formed groups are still developing that identity while trying to overcome the competitiveness and suspicion that 30 years of research assessment have inculcated.
What was most striking in the report was the suggested effect of consortia on the performance of their members. The authors start this chapter of the report by quoting Steve Smith, the vice-chancellor at Exeter: “If you’ve not got a doctoral training centre you’re in real trouble. It’s not the money so much—it’s the kitemark. It’s like musical chairs. The chairs get pulled away and if you’ve got nowhere to sit what happens?”
The authors looked at the performance of the members of the regional consortia against non-members. Using the Complete University Guide as their yardstick, the report highlights that on average consortia members rose three and a half places since their formation; non-members sunk four places in the same period.
Now of course correlation isn’t causation. The report does note the prevalence of the Russell Group—and, to a lesser extent, the former 1994 Group—among the members of the regional consortia. Ninety-three per cent of Russell Group members belong to one of these mission groups. It might be the case that the stark seven and a half place differential is more evidence of the increasing concentration of resources in higher education and the resulting Matthew Effect: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
But I think there’s more to it than that. Smith had a point, and these days to withstand the cold winds of a funding winter you have to be in a gang, whether it be a regional consortium, the Russell Group, or another grouping. It’s not necessarily safety in numbers, but the reassurance of kitemark branding that makes the difference.
What does this mean for the future? The report ends on a somewhat sombre note, suggesting that there is a "pulling up [of] the drawbridge". “The most politically contentious issue raised by the new regional maps...is the transition...toward this new regional geography, which is clearly spatially selective of who is included and who is excluded", it says.
The issue is given sharper focus by chancellor George Osborne’s somewhat gnomic statement in his summer budget: "The government will invite universities, cities, LEPs [local enterprise partnerships] and businesses to map strengths and identify potential areas of strategic focus for different regions through a series of science and innovation audits."
What shape these audits take and whom they favour has yet to be seen, and should become clearer after the November spending review.
It will be no surprise if the government favours regional consortia based around the big, research-intensive universities. And while that is good for those within the consortia, it could be damaging for UK higher education as a whole.
This article first appeared in Funding Insight in September 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com