Saturday, 9 November 2013

On Mission Groups

The 1994 Group announced yesterday that it was shutting down operations.  It didn't make much news outside higher education circles, which is probably the real reason they shut down.  The press release states in very positive terms how a natural end point for the group has come, but I expect the more prosaic reason is that the 1994 Group failed to do what the Russell Group has successfully done:  To convince people that it means something to be in the group.

I think the closest analogy for these so-called Mission Groups is that they are like London Gentlemen's Clubs.  They are set up in the same way:  By a group of men who meet together in London and decide that they would like to form a club, for no other reason than to say "look - we're in a club because we belong together, and you're not in the club, because you don't belong"  Then, by making enough noise, and making people outside the club want to be in, a name is made for yourself.  By successful lobbying, the Russell Group has convinced potential students, parents, employers, journalists, perhaps even the government that they don't need to understand anything about higher education directly, they can just take the word of the Russell Group that they are the best Universities.  

To be a member of the Gentlemen's club, you need to be accepted by the existing members and convince them that you went to the right sort of school (or are the right sort of school).  Then you need to pay handsomely.  As the Times Higher Educational Supplement found out, the Universities who were recently allowed to join the club handed over a lot of student fee income for the privilege.  Now all the people who have been successfully convinced that the Russell Group means something will think more highly of these newly-joined universities.  They are probably right to join. 

So the poor 1994 Group, which started as a kind of reaction to the Russell Group, never made its way into the collective consciousness, and so had no real reason to exist any more.  My own institution was one of a number to jump ship in the last couple of years, and I guess the writing was on the wall for a little while.