Go back

Broken allegiances put mission groups in doubt

Is it a strategic realignment or the age of going solo?

At least 14 universities have left mission groups or switched allegiances during a tumultuous year in higher education, sparking widespread speculation about the shape of things to come.

Since January, seven universities have left the 1994 Group of smaller, research-intensive universities and at least six institutions are no longer affiliated to the Million+ group of modern universities.

The exodus from the 1994 Group follows reports of increased subscription fees, unclear policy objectives and an identity crisis, though a spokesman for the organisation would not be drawn on these issues.

One commentator suggested to Research Fortnight that this could be the beginning of a “stampede”, with Lancaster University a likely candidate for the next exit. Mark Smith, vice-chancellor of Lancaster, said in a statement that the university has “not made any immediate plans to leave” but may review the situation in the future.

Similar changes are unfolding at Million+, where the universities of Northampton, Gloucestershire, Coventry, Kingston, London Southbank and Southampton Solent have all left in the past year. Research Fortnight also understands that the University of Central Lancashire is considering leaving the group. Although Kingston and Coventry have since switched over to the University Alliance, Northampton and other universities have decided to stay on their own rather than belonging to any university group.

Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of Northampton, says that many universities are starting to question whether being a member of a mission group representing smaller, less research-intensive universities is worth the financial cost.

“We can’t really see what value a mission group offers us anymore,” he says. “We’d rather be independent and pick and choose the universities we want to work with,” he says. “Million+, as a think tank, has a useful role to play. But it has almost become a millstone around our neck, being part of a mission group.”

Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of the University of Wollongong in Australia and former head of the 1994 Group and Lancaster University, says raised tuition fees and increased competition between institutions will drive individualisation and make it harder for certain university groups to survive. This could make vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK more powerful.

“What you’re about to see is UUK becoming the main conversation point with the government and then presumably the Russell Group making noises off stage saying that they’ve got significance when it comes to the research fabric of the UK,” he argues.

“The certain thing is that as the competition gets more intense there will be more stratification,” says Roger Brown, co-director of the Centre of Higher Education Research Development at Liverpool Hope University. “I think there’ll be a gradual shifting around. The fault line really is between the big five universities and the rest of the Russell Group and then between the Russell Group and everyone else,” he says.

Despite the apparent meltdown that has taken place in 2012, Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, and Libby Hackett, chief executive of University Alliance, argue that other mission groups still have a role to play.

“There will continue to be a need for an evidence base and a voice other than UUK which counters the publicity from those who seek to claim that a subset of universities should command the majority of resources in respect of research, teaching and knowledge transfer,” Tatlow says.

As Research Fortnight uncovered last week, UUK is dealing with its own problems, after a blunder during its election process threw the legitimacy of its newly-appointed president, Christopher Snowden, into doubt. UUK failed to send an email calling for nominations to all members and have now reopened the nomination process until 16 November. Snowden is himself vice-chancellor at the University of Surrey, the latest institution to go solo after leaving the 1994 Group.