Michael Farthing: 'The 1994 Group represents the sane middle'

Michael Farthing's 1994 Group may not shout as loudly as the Russell Group of universities, but, he tells Richard Garner, it represents the 'sane middle' in the heated debate about the future of higher education.

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Michael Farthing insists his organisation is the "voice of sanity" in the increasingly volatile world of higher education. The vice-chancellor of Sussex University has this year gained the chairmanship of the 1994 Group of universities.

It is not the Russell Group – considered by many to represent the elite of universities and made up of 24 of the most highly intensive research institutions in the UK, including Oxford and Cambridge. Nor is it million+, which now refers to itself as a university think-tank (an easier way to describe to media personnel what it does than sayisaneng the bulk of its membership is the former polytechnics that transferred to university status in 1992).

The 1994 group, by comparison, represents some 15 middle- or smaller- sized universities that have a high degree of commitment to research.

It also includes in membership some of the more specialist institutions such as London University's Institute of Education and the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Wake up in the morning and you are not too likely to find Professor Farthing tête à tête with somebody in the education world or slugging it out with John Humphrys on BBC's Today.

"Partly this is due to the fact that the media and journalists in general like polar opposites," he says. "John Humphrys might like the Russell Group and million+ telling you like it is – you might even get them arguing on the subject. We tend to be sane – we're the sane middle because of the work we do. We probably produce more on policy and our comments and policy are evidence-based." In the corridors of power, he insists, the 1994 group's view are just as sought after, if not more so – than the other groups.

Professor Farthing does not complain about any lack of coverage for his organisation's standpoint. "It is not something I bleat on about," he says. "You get what you deserve – and we do get listened to. We don't feel the need to bang a particular drum." However, he adds: "I certainly want to make sure during my period that the group's voice is heard and we don't just remain a sensible but silent group in the middle that does lots of hard work. I think our opinions are valid and I would like to make sure our presence is enhanced."

So, as the voice of the "sane middle" – not the "squeezed middle", the phrase coined by Labour leader Ed Miliband to describe a similar cohort of people whose views, he thinks, have been ignored – how are they viewing the Government's higher education reforms? "I always think the higher education sector is a mature sector," he says, "run in an intelligent way. Most of us make the best of things on the evidence we have before us. Most of us will manage our way through the changes perfectly well. Many of us welcome the prospect of increased autonomy we will see with the new structure."

From this September, universities will be free to recruit as many students with two A grades and a B grade at A-level as they want – opening up the prospect of a bidding war that could see the more elite universities expand at the expense of the others. This is to be extended next year to the recruitment of any student with an A grade and two B grades at A-level and above. (At the other end of the scale, 20,000 places have been reserved for those universities charging less than £7,500 a year in tuition fees.) Professor Farthing was speaking before Universities Minister David Willetts confirmed the expansion of the scheme to students with an A and two Bs next year, but he said his group viewed it as the logical next stage for the Government's reforms.

He also predicts that the reforms will see an expansion of higher education being provided in further education colleges, particularly as a result of the Government's decision to hold back places for those institutions charging less than £7,500 a year. "I think that's the Government's intention," he says.

He queries comments by Professor AC Grayling last month that the fees he is charging for his New College of the Humanities (£18,000 a year) will not look out of place in a few years time.

"Personally, I think it is very unlikely that any government over the next five or eight years is going to be able to make over student loans at the level that Professor Grayling's organisation is charging," he says.

He believes the reforms could mean a squeeze on the newer universities – the former polytechnics – particularly if the drive to increase higher education provision in colleges is successful.

"Some universities," he adds, "may be content to capture a smaller market as a result of the changes."

He adds that it is "always a possibility" that some universities may consider mergers as a result of the changes. "I think there is an opportunity for rationalisation of the sector," he adds. "It will be interesting – we've seen very few mergers during the past 15 years. Some might be refocusing their activities – there may well be real benefits for the students here."

Whatever happens on the national scale, the future of his own university, Sussex, looks assured as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. It is currently engaging on an expansion of student numbers. After a tense first few years as its vice-chancellor, which included battles with unions over reforms that included redundancies, there is a mood of optimism on the campus.

"When I came we had less than 10,000 students," he says. "We've now got 12,000 students. By 2015, we'll have got somewhere nearer 15,000 students."

The university has seen an expansion of international student numbers. "The numbers were below 20 per cent – even less than 15 per cent – international students at one time. We're now in the low 20s and we're very conscious of the fact we won't be able to offer the same experience to international students if we become 50, 60 or 70 per cent international. The last thing we want to do is for them to sit in classrooms just with people of their own country rather than offer them a diverse experience."

As a result, recruitment of UK-born students has increased at the same time. "We attract some very local students here and some of those students do come from non-university backgrounds," he adds. "We do have a powerful widening participation agenda," he says. Under its agreement with the Office for Fair Access, the university admissions watchdog, it has guaranteed to provide support for students from non-traditional university backgrounds for three years after they have finished their course to find employment. Research by the university shows some students from this background do less well than those from traditional university backgrounds when it comes to finding employment.

"It may be because of the extent of preparedness or confidence they have in themselves," he says. "We felt they would do as well if not better if they had continued access to our careers people and our services." As he contemplates a closer involvement with the national higher education scene, it is clear he has not taken his eye off the ball locally.