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.