A couple of weeks ago Mario Creatura and Martin Hughes delved into the issue of university representative groups. Mario and Martin (not yet a boyband) both mentioned the difficulties UUK has of representing a sector that boasts of a diverse range of missions and interests.
They were both right. Since the expansion of the sector it has been impossible for UUK to solely represent the interests of universities. But why? Three famous studies from the world of political science may start to offer us an answer.
In his article Still the Century of Corporatism? Schmitter defined corporatism as “a system of interest representation in which the constituent units are organised into “a limited number of singular, compulsory, non competitive, hierarchically ordered and functionally differentiated categories, recognised or licensed (if not created) by the state” (1974: 93-4).
There are clear similarities between his definition of corporatism and the model of representation in higher education before mission groups. In 1918 when UUK was established as The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom (bit of a mouthful), it lobbied on behalf of 22 universities. These institutions had similar outlooks and aspirations. They did research; they did a bit of teaching; they had the best minds, both in front of, and behind, the lectern. Their students and staff all came from similar backgrounds. They didn’t do the outside world. This is of course an oversimplification, but you get my point – universities were quite a homogenous bunch and so their political and policy interests were pretty much the same too. As a result, they could group together collectively and form one representative body, recognised by Government as the go-to organisation for the views of Vice-Chancellors.
Whist the CVCP wasn’t created by the State or to my knowledge compulsory, like a corporatist group it was the sole body representing universities to Government. There were clear similarities.
From just 22 members in 1918 however, UUK now represents 133 higher education institutions. This expansion was a direct result of successive Governments’ policy to grow the scope and scale of higher education. In particular, the 1992 education act, which re-designated the former polytechnics as universities, opened up the sector to institutions that had different missions and purposes. Alongside the traditional universities the UK now has institutions that focus on broadening participation, engagement with business and skilling the professions and the public sector (I could go on). Within this landscape it’s impossible for one university group to represent the interests of all. Policy inevitably prioritises the interests of some universities over others – the issue of critical mass with regards to research funding being a current example. So universities had to establish groups that lobbied on behalf of their particular interests over the interests of others.
This situation was described in Mancur Olson’s Logic of Collective Action. He argued that small groups were more likely to successfully represent interests than large groups because, in small groups, members’ personal gain from having a collective good exceeded the total cost of providing some amount of the collective good. This relates to higher education because members of mission groups by their very nature are similar in identity. Mission groups can therefore take policy positions that would, if implemented, be a bigger benefit to their members than a group such as UUK, which represents a large, diverse sector. The competing interests amongst UUK members mean that their policy positions are inevitably weakened by compromise. Whereas the mission groups position is much closer to their members’ ideal policy outcome.
As a consequence of the changing dynamic within HE, mission groups emerged in the 1990s to more closely represent the interests of universities. At first glance, influence over policy has moved away from corporatism to pluralism. As Dahl’s seminal Who Governs? argues, influence, as we see with the arrival of mission groups, is fragmented and divided because different groups compete with each other to influence Government and others. Of course, no generalised model can fully capture the policy environment. For example, a hierarchy within mission groups based on the preconceived prestige of institutions could impact on their ability to influence policy. And it wouldn’t be until researchers had empirically studied who really has influence over higher education policy that we could make a definitive conclusion. But, to my mind, Dahl’s theory of Pluralism and Mancur Olson’s Logic of Collective Action are good places to start when trying to understand the growth of groups representing universities and their collective and individual impact on the policy arena.
Dahl, R. (1961) Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City, New Haven: Yale University Press
Olson, M. (1965) The logic of collective action: Public goods and the theory of groups, Cambridge Mass: Harvard UP
Schmitter, P.C. (1974) ‘Still the Century of Corporatism?’ The Review of Politics, Vol.36, No. 1, pp. 85-131