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After the ‘94 group

Now who will stand up for research at UK universities?

So the board of the 1994 Group of smaller, research-intensive universities has called it a day. The news will have surprised few. The steady haemorrhaging of members and lack of a clear mission, coupled with the Russell Group’s expansion, was an ominous combination. When the University of Reading became the eighth university to head for the exit door, in December last year, the group’s fate was effectively sealed.

It could be argued that UK higher education was never really big enough for two mission groups with research in their names. And as research concentration is an important part of both funder and government policy, ministers and policymakers have little reason to speak to a mission group created to represent a pre-concentration world. In that sense, the 1994 Group was lucky to survive for 19 years. 

Some argue that raised tuition fees and increased competition between institutions will drive individualisation and lead to the demise of small mission groups, with many institutions preferring to go solo. But the Russell Group is sure to survive such a meltdown and the majority of UK universities—which all carry out research—are not in the Russell Group. So who will represent that silent majority? Who will speak for those universities with pockets of world-class or high-impact research? Who will champion the interests of the so-called islands of excellence?

The 1994 Group’s demise could be an opportunity for one or more of the five groups that are still standing.

Let’s begin with a long-shot scenario: the Russell Group acquires yet more of the ‘non-aligned’ universities and effectively becomes a single voice for all research. At the same time, more world-leading departments at small universities transfer to Russell Group institutions (as seems to be something of a trend). It is conceivable, in this unlikely scenario, that fewer small universities will carry out top-flight research.

In a second scenario, Million+ or the business-focused University Alliance step in. Most UK universities already do some high-impact research, even if the Research Excellence Framework doesn’t know how to recognise it, and this continues. In addition, these institutions are well used to speaking to people in government, parliament and elsewhere.

A third scenario involves Universities UK playing an enhanced role. UUK’s influence rests on finding—and then fighting for—real issues that affect everyone. The survival of research at universities outside the Russell Group is certainly something worth fighting for.

Last but not least, the 1994 Group’s fall is an opportunity for the Association of Research Managers and Administrators. ARMA members wield considerable power at universities, and the group has links to government departments and funders through its work on topics such as open access. Now could be the time it steps up to play a more strategic role.

The 1994 Group’s demise is not a reflection of UK research; even in these tough economic times, high-quality, high-impact research takes place in all of our universities. What our institutions need now is leadership and vision so that this message gets through to those who make decisions on our behalf.