The Russell Groupies

There’s an interesting article in Research Professional upon which I thought a brief comment would be appropriate. The article is mainly about the recent demise of the 1994 Group of universities, made inevitable when some of its larger members jumped ship to climb on board the much posher Russell Group. I’ve always felt that mission groups of this type were of little interest or value, but the growth of the Russell Group has, in my view, become rather sinister because it involves a cynical attempt to manufacture status when none is justified by performance.

The piece in Research Professional says:

Vice-chancellors and principals are not the only ones playing the status game. Students, employers, academics and government ministers—who seem to love visiting Russell Group universities—all want to be associated with high-status universities, even if those institutions do not necessarily provide better education or research. A 2009 analysis of the results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, carried out by the Higher Education Policy Institute, found that Russell Group institutions performed only half a percentage point better than the overall average, and that when universities in the golden triangle were excluded the score fell to below average. Truly, this is an emperor with very modest clothes.

This echoes my experience. Before moving to the University of Sussex earlier this year I worked in two Russell Group universities (and one which wasn’t in the Russell Group when I worked there but is now). All these institutions have much to recommend them – and I have no desire whatsoever to say negative things about former colleagues – but it is clear to me that they (or at least their Physics Departments) can’t claim to be any better than the one in which I currently work. Indeed the Physics department that performed best in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise was Lancaster, which is also not in the Russell Group.

It’s also noticeable that the primary characteristic of Russell Group universities in the National Student Survey tables is that they generally do quite poorly relative to non-members. Does Russell Group status mean promoting research at the expense of teaching and the student experience generally?

There’s no doubt that by many metrics there is a group of “elite” English universities – Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, and Imperial. The Russell group comprises these and a few other excellent institutions. But the later additions are simply a group of fairly average universities who thought the £500,000 joining fee was worth paying to try to convince students and others that they had elite status too. Worryingly, it seems that the Russel Brand Group Group Brand has been marketed so effectively that politicians are starting to talk as if “research intensive” and “Russell Group” mean one and the same thing.

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2 Responses to “The Russell Groupies”

  1. I don’t know if you had time to wade through the Witty report but some of his infographics at the end were interesting (even if they were based crude metrics). Although the Russell Group & Research Intensive unis publish the most in most technological and scientific areas, it is the younger unis who appear more innovative and have better links to SMEs/spin-outs.

  2. “There’s no doubt that by many metrics there is a group of “elite” English universities – Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, and Imperial.”

    Surely, any objective list would have to include Manchester as well.

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