Universities have always been clubbable places. Most strive to create at least the semblance of senior common rooms, however sprawled across suburban campuses or imprisoned in inner cities. Student unions may never have acquired quite the Germanic intensity of student organisations, sometimes fiercely termed "nations", in European universities. But in a gentler way, through clubbing and agitprop, they powerfully shape student experiences.
Teaching, too, in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, is a rather intimate activity - despite the efforts of the quality bureaucracy to industrialise the process. Research groups are really clubs - in seminars and at laboratory benches (and when the professors and their teams go off on summer outings to the hills or coast). Indeed many academic conferences are actually club outings.
There are also lots of "virtual clubs". Peer review is really an extended club, which explains its strengths (inside knowledge) and weaknesses (inward knowledge). So are external examiners, quality assurance assessors, professional body inquisitors, members of research assessment panels and so on. Finally there are the very grand clubs like the Royal Society and the British Academy.
So it is hardly surprising that vice-chancellors, too, like clubs. Once, of course, according to legend it was the Athenaeum - the idea if not the place. For a while vice-chancellors were satisfied with their own club, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP). Like the Athenaeum, the CVCP was an idea as much as a place. The very initials suggested status, even if its actual operations were more mundane.
Now, we are told, the CVCP is no longer the vice-chancellors' favourite club. I say "we are told" because, despite being a vice-chancellor, I rely like everyone else on what I read in the newspapers. Today there are new clubs - for the big boys the "Russell Group" (so named because the vice-chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge, the key London University colleges and the big civics like to meet in the Russell Hotel - why?); for the smaller civics, the former colleges of advanced technology like Bath and Surrey and the new universities of the Sixties such as Sussex the "1994 Group" (I am sorry - I am not sure I have ever known why it is called the "1994 Group" and I have certainly forgotten); and for the "new" universities - ie the former polytechnics - the "Coalition of Modern Universities".
Here I must make a number of confessions. First, a declaration of interest: last year I was in a Russell Group university and now I am in a university that is a member - at any rate I think I am, because it is in the nature of clubs to be rather indirect - of the Coalition of Modern Universities. Frankly I haven't noticed that much difference. Of course, Leeds has far more money than Kingston (which until 31 December seemed to me reasonable and now strikes me as grossly unfair). But the people I meet, the new courses we talk about, the research bids we review are all remarkably similar.
Next, I am not really a very clubbable person. Clubs are intrinsically boring places; almost their only attraction is that they are exclusive. It is an instinct that leads through racism, sexism and other non-lethal forms of discrimination ultimately to ethnic cleansing and genocide. In other words, not nice. The form clubs take may have changed - once you dozed in green leather armchairs, today you are hooked into e-mail - but their unattractive essence hasn't.
Of course, there are real differences between universities - and within them too. Some, universities and departments, are engaged in cutting-edge research while others are more deeply committed to extending opportunities for life-long learning. But almost none claim to do one to the exclusion of the other. Of course, there are "class" distinctions between universities, with lots of negative side-effects - able academics in less prestigious universities must endure enormous condescension while students endure bad teaching for the sake of a "respectable" degree. But, looked at from the outside, these differences and distinctions seem rather slight.
Universities have a major job to reassert and redefine their collective identity. Last year's Dearing report may have been meant to do that but, if so, it failed. What exactly is a university today? The lack of a clear and sure answer may lie at the heart of many of higher education's current angsts - for example, its unease about whether agreeing to abandon "free" higher education will pay off in a new funding deal following the Treasury's comprehensive spending review or its worry about where it fits into the Government's vision of the learning age.
I suspect that my efforts to reinvent Kingston as a "modern university", as opposed to some other kind, or my former Leeds colleagues' efforts to develop an exclusive Russell Group brand, may actually make things worse - not because we shouldn't celebrate our different missions, but because the general public is unlikely to get a clearer idea of what a university is, and its great creative potential, scientifically and socially, is something we don't seem to be able to agree among ourselves. But, of course, it is easy for an unclubbable person to be leery of clubs.
The writer is Vice Chancellor of Kingston University.Reuse content