Elite play game of thrones with no fear of secession

Unity confirmed, but Russell Group's new chair will have to deal with Gove. John Morgan reports

The Russell Group is gearing up to choose which vice-chancellor will take charge of its expanded membership after it emerged that members had discussed whether expansion could lead to a breakaway.

Michael Arthur, the University of Leeds vice-chancellor, will step down as Russell Group chair in August or September, and a decision on his replacement is expected to be taken at a meeting of the mission group in July.

Vice-chancellors cited by sources as contenders to replace him include David Eastwood of the University of Birmingham, Don Nutbeam of the University of Southampton and Anton Muscatelli of the University of Glasgow.

The new chair will take up the post after the group of large research-intensive universities increases its membership to 24 with the admission of Durham University, the University of Exeter, the University of York and Queen Mary, University of London on 1 August.

Times Higher Education understands that the question of whether the expansion could prompt departures by a super-elite subgroup was discussed within the Russell Group prior to the decision to grow.

Leading candidates to leave may have included the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, Imperial College London, the London School of Economics and University College London, which previously have identified themselves as the G5 group in addition to their Russell Group membership.

Shifts in income following the research excellence framework in 2014 and relaxed number controls for high-achieving students could deliver further gains to the super-elite and exacerbate tensions.

However, it is thought that before the decision to expand was taken, assurances were given that there would be no breakaways.

A Russell Group spokesman said there were "no current plans for further changes to the membership".

Meanwhile, minutes from an Exeter council meeting on 5 April - now removed from its website - note that Sir Steve Smith, its vice-chancellor, reported that "it is the Russell Group's last expansion for a decade".

Among the candidates for chair, Professor Eastwood has significant expertise as a former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. However, his membership of the Browne Review, which paved the way for higher fees, could make him a target for criticism from outside the group.

An appointment from a Scottish university might be problematic, given that the changes to fees and funding in England will be a core concern for the mission group.

Meanwhile, the Russell Group is being courted by Michael Gove, the education secretary, who wants its institutions to decide the content of A-level examinations. Negotiating the level of Russell Group involvement in such reform - a major undertaking - may be another task for the new chair.

Mr Gove, who was invited to discuss the proposals as a guest at a recent Russell Group dinner, is also known to be keen for universities to be brought back under the Department for Education's auspices.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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