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Is The Russell Group Really An Elite?

UniBox has warned before that university applicants should take the glossy marketing of universities with a pinch of salt.

Contributor Philip Rogerson has dissected the use of league table rankings by universities in their prospectuses, and has also examined the branding imperatives of making high grade offers to applicants.

Arguably the biggest brand in UK higher education is the Russell Group, an association of 24 ‘leading’ universities including Oxford and Cambridge that’s often referred to as the sector’s ‘elite’.

But new research shows that most Russell Group members may not be that different from other pre-1992 universities.

Vikki Boliver, Senior Lecturer in Sociology/Social Policy in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University, has published a report entitled Are there distinctive clusters of higher and lower status universities in the UK? and discovered four main groups in UK universities. Using publicly-available data around research activity, teaching quality, student satisfaction and economic resources, she discovered that:

  • Oxford and Cambridge stand out on their own as the top two
  • the remaining 22 Russell Group members sit alongside more than half of the “Old” (pre-1992) universities
  • a third cluster contains 13 Old universities and 54 New (post-1992) universities
  • a fourth cluster contains 19 New universities.

She says: “The Russell Group has been tremendously successful in promoting its 24 member institutions as the ‘jewels in the crown’ of the UK higher education system.”

However, she concludes: “The results… suggest that there are currently four distinctive clusters of universities in the UK. A stark division is evident between the Old pre-1992 universities on the one hand and the New post-1992 universities on the other hand, with large differences evident in terms of research activity, economic resources, academic selectivity and social mix. The difference between Old and New universities with respect to teaching quality, however, is much more minor.

“Oxford and Cambridge that stand out among the Old universities as forming an ‘elite’ tier of universities. Again the differences between this ‘elite’ tier and the rest are substantial in relation to research activity, economic resources, academic selectivity and social mix, but are much more modest in relation to teaching quality.

“The findings also chime with recent challenges to the Russell Group’s claim to represent 24 ‘leading’ UK universities, which point out that a substantial number of non-Russell Group universities rank above the average Russell Group institution on a range of measures including research intensiveness… and NSS student satisfaction scores.”

Her research at Durham focuses on the stratification of higher education and on multigenerational social mobility, and this paper says: “In terms of socioeconomic student mix, cluster 2 universities serve an appreciably more socioeconomically advantaged student body: the percentage of students not from low participation neighbourhoods and from higher social class backgrounds are around five and 15 percentage points higher respectively, while the percentage of students from private schools is more than four times greater for cluster 2 universities than for cluster 3 universities, at 16.1% compared to 3.6%.

“Oxford and Cambridge also serve much more socioeconomically advantaged student bodies: the percentage of students not from low participation neighbourhoods is similar to that for cluster 2 universities, but the percentage coming from higher social class backgrounds is around ten percentage points higher and the percentage coming from private schools is around twice as high at 34.9% compared to 16.1%.

“Cluster 4 universities also admit a less socioeconomically advantaged student body with respect to low participation neighbourhood, social class and school type.” Being less-well-resourced, she says, “it is these universities whose continued existence is most imperilled by the growing privatisation and marketisation of the UK higher education system.”

Should the cap on £9000 fees be lifted for better-performing universities, she argues, “it seems likely that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge will forge even further ahead of the rest in terms of economic resources. Less certain is which of the 22 Russell Group and 17 other Old universities in cluster 2 will manage to follow in the slip stream of Oxford and Cambridge under a fully marketised tuition fees system.”

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Wed, 8 Feb 2017



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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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