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It’s time to talk about the Russell Group

  • 20 August 2022
  • By Mary Curnock Cook CBE

This piece has been written by Mary Curnock Cook, a HEPI Trustee and Chair of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission. You can find Mary on Twitter @MaryCurnockCook.

Much of the reporting and headlines around university admissions throughout the year, and particularly around A level results day, read as if they apply to the whole university sector.  The reality is that they’re often, if subliminally, all about the Russell Group. This is a self-selecting, self-promoting group of 24 universities often labelled the nation’s ‘elite’ or ‘top’ universities. The reality is far from this.

The Russell Group includes perhaps four or five genuinely outstanding universities, including, of course, Oxford and Cambridge. But among the rest there are some very modest performers – some of their members would struggle to make the top 40 or 50 universities on many measures of student progress and satisfaction. A few score poorly on teaching quality too.

I have yet to see any research into students’ preferences for their university choices which includes ‘large research intensive’ as an indicator, but this is the common factor amongst Russell Group members. Today it has become a hugely successful if hollow ‘brand’ which is distorting the market, student choice and political thinking. As David Willetts said recently on ConHome, ‘what makes our ‘top’ universities top is their world-class research. That does not mean their teaching is better.’

Universities in the Russell Group tend to be significantly over-indexed for white middle-class students, including a massive over-representation of the independently educated. They pay lip service to widening participation while leaving other universities to do the harder work of opening up a world of opportunity through higher education to those from lower-income groups. More diversity at the ‘top’ of the sector would mean more diversity in the whole sector – mixing socio-economic backgrounds in all universities would give a better outcome for all students.

Meanwhile, the Government, the media and the chattering classes sneer at non-Russell Group universities, especially if they happen to be a former polytechnic. It’s plain old-fashioned snobbery of the most pernicious kind. The Government wants to root out poor quality courses, but only in a certain kind of university (not including the hallowed cloisters of the Russell Group of course); journalists buy unthinkingly into the Russell Group PR without ever questioning the quality of what they do; and middle-class parents blush at dinner parties if their offspring have failed to make it to what they erroneously think is the only higher education game in town. Little do they realise what they and, more importantly, their children are missing out on.  

While individual universities in the Group have much to commend them, it’s the grouping of these universities into a brand pack that damages the sector and distorts demand. The clustering of demand for Russell Group courses has caused a cluster of unnecessary disappointment for students this year.

This summer’s headlines about A* predicted students failing to get a single offer were really about not getting a single offer from a Russell Group university. If only these highly able students had been advised to spread their applications over more than just 24 universities, they would have been fine. Take a look at some of the universities which, though not in the Russell Group, perhaps also merit the ‘top’ label – like Lancaster, Bath, Portsmouth, or Loughborough, and some of the newer medical schools at Hull, East Anglia, Sunderland and Edge Hill. Or innovators at the Dyson Institute, London Interdisciplinary School or TEDI:London, the latter of which, incidentally, is sponsored by King’s College, Arizona State University and the University of New South Wales. Sadly, the exclusive and self-interested Russell Group’s dominance entrenches a deadening conservatism in British higher education.  

Individual members of the Russell Group might consider liberating themselves as it’s the groupthink in the group itself that does as much harm as anything.  An organisation with an eye-watering subscription fee that thinks it’s better to promote the group brand than its individual members, stating that its first policy focus is ‘sustainable funding’.  ‘Access’ is only fourth on its list where the group suggests it is ‘continually (sic) working to make our world-class education more accessible to students of all backgrounds’.

There’s no reason for the rest of the us to encourage the Russell Group’s pompous self-delusion. It’s time to get serious about the damage being done by this increasingly vacuous brand. Given its members’ prominence in the national debate, the Group should publish and maintain some entry criteria which would allow eligible universities to join while others are relegated – at least then the brand values of the Russell Group might be more meaningful for aspiring students.

8 comments

  1. Congratulations to Mary Curnock Cook. She is absolutely right in every respect. The Russell Group was established as a dishonest market brand, in which it has been very successful, culminating almost a decade ago by Government recognition of the brand in its own rhetoric and even policy. Too many people have bought into this for their own self-interested motives. It’s about time to have an honest debate about what universities do and do not offer their students, and what they should be doing.

    Charles Clarke
    Former Secretary of State for Education and Skills
    Co-Author “The University Challenge”

  2. David Carter says:

    This is a balanced piece (thank you) which avoids criticism of individual institutions, concentrating instead on the RG brand.

    It’s worth adding that some schools and sixth-form colleges in my experience buy into this lazy thinking. They use RG admissions as a success indicator and, in doing so, are co-opted into promoting the RG.

  3. Nick Von Behr says:

    Well said Mary and Charles. What a great education team!

  4. Catherine Easter says:

    you make the assumption that Oxford and Cambridge (and a few others – which ones?)are unassailable and thus continue to perpetuate the myth. Other members of the RG have done much more to bolster their teaching and learning and be more socially inclusive. I’m the pursuit of the golden thread of research there are also many non Russell Group universities, hitherto once praised for excellent teaching, which have allowed their teaching and learning to wane in importance.
    Also, an opportune mention of the Dyson Institute should be contextualised by the personal insight you have of it. We all have bias when it comes to these judgements it would seem and it’s only fair to lay these out clearly.

  5. Robert Wilson says:

    Snobbery is rife in British society. Its amazing to hear journalists and politicians deride “useless degrees” calling for defunding of humanities and social science departments. When ironically, in many cases, they themselves have studied degrees related to the humanities and social sciences!
    The only difference in their minds is that they studied at “elite universities”. Unfortunately even Mary in her article is quick to defer to holy grail of Oxbridge.

    And yet if you look closely at the Oxbridge/Russel Group graduates who dominate our political and media class. Many are nothing more than uninquisitive mediocrities. Who only climbed to their position of power because of family wealth and their many connections supporting them along the way. This is why our country is in such a mess.

  6. Cath says:

    Interesting piece and agree the “Russell Group vs “other”” division is very harmful .

    I note comments about schools/colleges buying in. My experience is that applicants’ parents can be prone to be obsessed with league tables and status – and they are more influential. We badly need more effective public promotion of the benefits of degrees at the full range of institutions, in the full range of subjects

  7. tom cannon says:

    Mary makes several important and useful points especially about the gap, perhaps chasm is a better term, that exists between teaching and research. Sadly, the widespread decision, extending far beyond the Russell Group, to make the Doctorate virtually a license to trade in Universities lies at the root of this. This is not least because the Doctorate distorts the priorities of young academics but because as an “apprenticeship” it is pretty useless. The apprentice model which dominates UK Universities focusses of the individual scholar when team based research and group teaching has become the global norm in serious, productive research. All this is, of course, compounded by the peculiar UK educational aberration of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), or whatever, name is employed. My own examination of the REFs and the earlier RAEs – under different names – highlighted how the best predictor of performance was membership of the Panels – dominated of course by Russell Group academics. It prompted me to suggest that perhaps the multi-million £ effort could be replaced by simply asking the Panels members or even cheaper those who selected the Panel member.

  8. Alan Lambert says:

    This article is living evidence that the ‘Politics of Envy’ is still alive and well in our weaker universities. The best will always attract the best. The mediocre ‘also rans’ will always find it necessary to bleat about unfairness.

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