University – Russell Group vs. Others

Russell Group universities are a cluster of twenty-four select, elite institutions established in 1994 with the aim of expressing and protecting common interests. Since its founding nineteen years ago, the Russell Group has grown and expanded with vigour and now includes some of the most prestigious “big brand” establishments in the game – including the matchless Oxford and Cambridge.
However, this esteemed reputation has not come without cost – the Russell Group concept has been at the centre of debate and scrutiny for some years, with many voicing concerns on the perils of categorising institutions and the pressure this exerts on schools, teachers and students.

The Russell Group has a renowned reputation for “outstanding research” and the “highest quality of teaching” (as it self-proclaims so humbly on its website). How though is this measured? Why are so many schools and teachers increasingly stressing the importance of aiming for Russell Group entry?

As of figures released in 2010, Russell Group members received approximately two-thirds of all university research grants and in 2010/11 they made up 19 of the 20 UK universities with the highest income from research grants. This already goes some way to showing the positive bias towards Russell Group institutions. Higher levels of funding are a strong causal factor of better performance in students. But what do some critics of the Russell Group project say?

Last summer a contentious decision in the Department of Education meant that the government would seek to collect information on how many Russell Group-bound students each school was producing. In response to this Libby Hackett, director of the University Alliance, says: “This is very dangerous. The government is creating a system where membership of a particular group of universities is being used as a proxy measure of excellence that will feed into league tables and, therefore, drive behaviour of schools and the advice they give their students.”

Although the Russell Group has gained indisputable prominence for its research prowess and strenuous entry requirements, there are voices in its own camp which discreetly express concerns over some members’ not-so-stellar reputation. Paul Webley, director at the School of Oriental and African Studies, says: “I think this is a bizarre measure. There are some weaker universities in the Russell Group, and some excellent ones outside it.” And sure enough, when one takes a second look, some remarkable institutions are missing from the club; perhaps most notably City University London and SOAS itself too.

Wendy Piatt, Director General at the Russell Group, has her own defiant view: “Our graduates are among the most sought-after worldwide. Employers rank 10 Russell Group universities in the top 30 in the world, and Russell Group graduates receive on average a 10% salary ‘top-up’ over those from other universities.” Russell Group vice-chancellors chime in, with Steve Smith – whose Exeter University joined last year – saying: “It does matter which institution you go to. The evidence is clear that it does affect your future, and we should encourage students to go to the best institution they can.” Bearing in mind that “the best institution they can” may not in all cases and for all students be a Russell group institution, is it viable or fair to measure success by the reputation of a university?
A good reputation alone is very desirable in a society with a competitive employment market. However, who is to say it will guarantee the best place to study your specific course and that it can promise wider student happiness as a whole?

If you have gone or are looking to go to a Russell Group university – or if you have any questions or comments on the matter – we would be delighted to hear from you.

We would appreciate your comments.

Below are related articles that we have written in the past. There is also a link to the Russell Group webpage.