The Russell Group, representing the top 19 universities in the UK by research income (including Imperial College), appears to be changing status from a "talking shop" to a genuine competitor to Universities UK, the umbrella organisation representing all universities in the UK. The group has advertised for a full-time paid national executive and is setting up a policy making committee to be in place before the Government's plans to allow universities to charge up to £3,000 a year tuition fees are put to Parliament. Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, is quoted in last week's Times as saying "we work well with the Russell Group...and I have discussed how this close involvement will continue."
The group appears to be proposing that although the top universities will continue to be represented by Universities UK on many issues that are considered universal they would break away on some issues - such as pay scales. Top academics in Britain earn significantly less than their US equivalents.
To increase the amount of money available to them, the Russell Group is proposing that tuition fees should be capped at £5,000 rather than the £3,000 currently suggested. The universities would expect to use the extra money to invest in better facilities and higher salaries in order to compete internationally though would presumably also use some of the extra money to boost their scholarships and bursaries for poorer students.
At present it does appear that the government's aim of creating a "market" in higher education with different institutions charging different rates of fees has been an abject failure, with almost all institutions gearing up to charge the full £3,000 a year fees as soon as possible. The Russell Group are arguing that more of a market is likely to emerge with a £5,000 cap since it is less likely that all institutions will charge the maximum possible amount.
However, news has emerged that Scotland's two Russell Group members, Edinburgh and Glasgow universities, are not expected to join any of the Group's moves for separate policy on pay or fees. Sir Graeme Davies, principal of Glasgow told this week's Times Higher Education Supplement that they " do things differently in Scotland". Last year both universities came out in opposition to top-up fees, reflecting a political reality in the devolved Scottish parliament where 3 of the 4 political parties are opposed to them.
The Aldwych Group, representing the students' unions of the Russell Group universities, responded to the news with a statement indicating that the unions are "increasingly worried by the selfish approach adopted by [their] parent institutions". Can Okar, Chair of the Aldwych Group, said that with its bid to increase the cap of tuition fees, "the Russell Group is undoing all the good work it has done in recent years to widen access".