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What is so great about the Russell Group?

We welcome Ian McClary, Head of Sixth Form at Bryanston, with his guest blog on the Russell Group universities.

In articles and debates about excellence in higher education ‘the Russell Group’ often crops up. One often comes across phrases in the press like 'elite Russell Group universities' or 'more students than ever are aspiring to places at the UK's leading universities in the Russell Group' and it is very easy to be led into thinking that these institutions are the only ones to which to aspire if you want a good degree or to be competitive in the employment marketplace afterwards. It is true that they are outstanding places to study and many have the kind of reputation and name recognition that make a graduate stand out, but it is a shame that the landscape of opportunities in higher education in the UK is often obscured by the Russell Group monolith through no fault of its own. 

The Russell Group, established in 1994, shortly after the polytechnics were given university status, as an association of 24 research-intensive universities (including Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, Queen's Belfast and Sheffield, as well as the ones more commonly assumed to be members) simply seeks to represent its members' interests to government and to help ensure the highest standards of teaching and research in the face of fierce international competition. It has been criticised by some as protectionist and its detractors claim that, by marketing itself very successfully as the elite club, its universities have benefitted from greater popularity which has made them harder to get into. I am not sure this argument stacks up, as around half of these universities are consistently ranked overall in the top 20 nationally each year, if certain league tables are to be believed. 

But this begs the question: what about the other universities in the top 20 that aren't part of the Russell Group? Moreover, if one looks at subject-specific league tables the picture changes significantly because, of course, no university can excel at everything. What often gets missed is that there are universities outside this club with similar aims to the Russell Group and which demonstrate excellence in a wide variety of fields. It could be argued that the term Russell Group encourages in some a sort of myopia. 

Formed in 2006, the University Alliance is a group of 22 universities which aims to bring together its members with business and government to improve higher education policy to benefit the UK economy and society. Its members are committed to focusing on combining science and technology with design and creative industries and to creating entrepreneurial and research environments in partnership with industry and the professions. Members of this group such as UWE Bristol and Oxford Brookes offer excellent courses and resources and have already gained a reputation for excellence in a number of areas. Yet they are often dismissed simply because they are newer institutions, are not as oversubscribed, and so they can afford to ask for slightly lower grades to attract a broader church of applicants. 

It is also interesting to note that last November the 1994 Group dissolved. This was another group of smaller, research-intensive universities, including Bath, Durham, Exeter, Manchester, St Andrews, Warwick and York, founded around the same time as the Russell Group for similar reasons. Some members eventually left it to join the bigger, more prestigious Russell Group while the remainder have decided that the need for such a group no longer exists, as the shape of higher education and priorities within the sector have continued to change. Perhaps this is the shape of things to come. 

The fact remains that UK universities are a major force in global higher education; they educate over two million students every year and the sector is more diverse and vibrant than ever before. The Russell Group has a place of pre-eminence within it, rightly or wrongly, but it has provided an important voice in policy making alongside other groups such as the University Alliance and think-tanks such as Million+. 

If a university in the Russell Group is the right place for your child and offers the right course for their academic and professional aspirations, then at Bryanston we will certainly encourage them to apply and compete along with other top-notch candidates; however, if they are simply applying because they believe that a university in the Russell Group is automatically better than universities outside it, we may well advise that they should perhaps widen their search and look again at exactly what else is out there.