New head of 1994 Group to call for an 'unashamedly elite' higher education sector

The new Executive Director of the 1994 Group of leading universities is to call for the UK higher education sector to “stop treating the ambition to be ‘elite’ as something to be ashamed of”  in his first major speech in the role. Alex Bols, who formally takes up the position on Monday 18 June, will make the call in a speech at the ‘HE Beyond 2015’ conference being held in London on Thursday.


In the speech, Mr Bols will challenge the UK higher education sector to proactively articulate a vision for higher education over the next decade. He will warn of the dangers of adopting a ‘wait and see’ stance, remarking that the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) and general election - as well as a possible spending review – could “make the changes of the last two years look like marginal tinkering”.


He will make the case for a vision of higher education based on “aspiring to the very highest levels of achievement– about being the best, offering the best, and expecting the best”.


Mr Bols will argue that the idea of being ‘elite’ is not about exclusion or prejudice, but rather about aspiring to high academic achievement through setting high standards. 


He will say:


“We want the UK sector to be among the global research elite, working to generate new ideas, drive innovation and push the boundaries of knowledge in ways that far exceed our competitors.


“We want to see UK universities home to excellent teaching and learning. This of course means ensuring that academic staff deliver for students in the ways they have a right to expect, but it also means expecting the very best of students themselves. Students should be prepared for a rigorous academic challenge which pushes them to reach well beyond their comfort zone.”


Mr Bols will argue that one of the ways of allowing the UK higher education sector to achieve a long term elite status will be to allow each institution to play to its own strengths, rather than compelling them all to compete on the same measures.


He will say:


“It’s to our great credit that the UK sector has such strength in depth, with excellence emerging in a variety of different guises and to suit a variety of different needs.


“For instance, 1994 Group and Russell Group universities focus on delivering excellent teaching in a wide range of subject areas in a research-rich environment. This offers students the opportunity to immerse themselves in academic communities, with the prospect of undertaking their own research alongside opportunities for extra-curricular activities. This is in many ways the epitome of the traditional academic model.


“However, as the student population expands there will be many for whom this primarily full-time, highly academic, mode of study is not right. Many will look to part time study, on accelerated programmes, or with a more vocational emphasis. It would be wrong to compel the institutions that specialise in this type of provision to compete like for like with the well established academic and research credentials of institutions like those I represent.”


Mr Bols will also warn of the dangers of lowering entry requirements to the most academically demanding institutions, like those in the 1994 Group and Russell Group. 


“Of course we work hard to support people with talent and potential to reach the standards required to gain a place at the best university that matches their needs, but lowering the academic bar to entry does them, and indeed institutions, a disservice and we must guard against this.”





Media Contact:
Mark Fuller

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Notes to Editors:

1.    Alex Bols will be speaking at the ‘HE Beyond 2015: New Student Choices, New Economics, New Technologies’ conference being held on Thursday 14th June 2012. Full details can be found at http://www.neilstewartassociates.com/jb325/index.php


The full text of Alex Bols’ speech is available to read via http://www.1994group.ac.uk/documents/AB%20future%20of%20HE%20speech%20FINAL.pdf



2.   Alex Bols joins the 1994 Group after four and a half years as Assistant Director (Research) and Head of Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS). At NUS, Alex oversaw major student experience research projects carried out with partners including HSBC and QAA. He also led on NUS’ role in developing the new Institutional Review process in England and NI and the introduction of the Key Information Set.


Alex is currently a member of the UK team of Bologna Experts supporting developments towards a European Higher Education Area and sits on numerous sector committees including: HEFCE’s Teaching, Quality and Student Experience Strategic Advisory Committee; Quality in HE Group; HE Public Information Steering Group; HE Better Regulation Group; Teaching Funding Advisory Group and Performance Indicators Steering Group; and is an Alternate Director for the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.


3.   The 1994 Group represents the UK’s leading student-focused research-intensive universities. It was established in 1994 to promote excellence in University research and teaching.


4.  9 of the top 20 universities in the Guardian University Guide 2012 league tables are 1994 Group members. 5 of the top 20 universities in the 2012 Sunday Times University League Table are 1994 Group members. 6 of the top 20 universities in the 2012 Complete University Guide are 1994 Group members. The University of Bath is the Sunday Times University of the year.

5. The 1994 Group represents: University of Bath, Birkbeck University of London,  University of East Anglia, University of Essex,  Goldsmiths University of London, Institute of Education University of London, Royal Holloway University of London, Lancaster University, University of Leicester, Loughborough University, University of Reading, University of St Andrews, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of Surrey, University of Sussex.

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