Career departments up and down the country push students towards Russell Group universities. Mine was no exception. They stated that these universities were the best, where you needed to be to succeed and would aid my future job prospects. These assumptions commonly surround Russell Group universities. Consequently, these misconceptions can lead to elitism in higher education.
Initially formed in 1994, Russell Group universities are a self-selected association of 24 universities, with Durham University joining this tight-knitted pack in 2012. Taking pride of place on the main page of their website is their own aggrandised statements of them being a group of “world-class” and “world-leading” institutions. Yet it is their shared interests in being vanguards in research and knowledge which unites these universities. Awareness that research bonds Russell groups together is deeply needed in preventing assumptions from parents, career departments and students that the Russell Group is the British alternative to the Ivy League.
The group stress their ‘altruism’ with them pouring in of £87 billion into the national economy and providing 260,000 jobs across the UK. But on closer examination, Russell Group universities are protectionist to their core. The Institute of Economic Affairs states that these universities put self-interests before students. As they “restrict competition, discourage innovation, and encourage inefficiency, thereby depriving students of lower prices and/or greater choice.” Their silence on maintenance grants, tuition fees and tackling inequality in the higher education system reveals their inflexible nature. Their disregard for student voices has never been more potent than the recent ripping up of the no detriment policy in undergraduate faces.
When it comes to teaching quality and the pastoral care of students Russell group universities are not ‘world-leading’. UK universities outside this exclusive group, like Royal Holloway University offer one to one tutoring, smaller classes, and care more about individual student needs. Likewise, the University of St. Andrews consistently places in the top three in the league tables. The very league tables which Russell Group universities like to boast about. The elite status proffered to universities within the group should be cross-examined as students from universities outside the Russell Group may miss on opportunities due to their ‘first-class degree’ coming from university regarded as lesser as it places the quality of teaching over the quality of research.
The adage of ‘success breeds success’ means universities on the peripheries of the Russell group suffer. By grouping together, they achieve more government money, awards, and contracts. Yet, this results in ignorance of the universities own strengths and weaknesses. Valuing where each university shines and the attributes they give their students would be advantageous for the job market. Rather than just assuming that the student who went to the Russell Group uni is better.
Russell Group universities contribute to the vicious cycle of higher education elitism. Little effort is made on their part to reform it. Pupils from independent schools are more than twice as likely to go to these universities. The Russell Group is wrapped up in ideas of expansion and extension of research and encouraging diversity is an afterthought. Cat Turhan, a policy analyst in the Russell Group, confessed: “We know there is more work to do in addressing educational inequality.” Whilst change is occurring in Russell Group universities, change is not happening fast enough. Russell groups need to do more to ensure they do not limit social mobility.
My school encouraged an application to a Russell Group university, yet I discourage this. The term ‘Russell Group’ should not be synonymous with intelligence. Instead, the Russell Group and its institutions should be recognized for what they are; ‘world-class’ at research but not necessarily ‘world-class’ at individual student needs. It is time to teach aspiring students to look at which university has the right course for them, not whether it is part of the Russell Group.
Image: Beatrice Law