Archive for Russell Group

Widening Participation Matters

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on May 3, 2017 by telescoper

Time for a mini-rant about the failure of many universities to make any real attempt to make higher education more accessible to students from diverse backgrounds, especially those from underrepresented social groups.

I found this item on Twitter the other day. It’s from a local newspaper in York, and it was accompanied by an article that applauded the University of York (rightly) for being in the top three Russell Group universities for widening participation.

The list shows all 24 universities in the Russell Group, along with the fraction of their students that come from state schools and the fraction that come from geographical areas where participation in higher education is low; ‘POLAR3’ is the latest iteration of the Participation of Local Areas survey carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

I’m very pleased that my current employer, Cardiff University, leads the Russell Group by this measure, followed by the Universities of Liverpool and York, respectively.

What doesn’t please me is that so many of these institutions have such low participation rates from this group, and also such a small fraction of students who were educated at state schools. Over 90% of the total number of students at UK universities were educated at state schools, but the only Russell Group member to exceed 90% is Queens University, Belfast. However, the school system in Northern Ireland is very different from the rest of the UK, with relatively few private schools, so the situation there is not really comparable.

When tuition fees were increased in 2012, Universities were only allowed the charge the maximum (£9K per annum) if they produced an `Access Agreement‘  outlining measures to be introduced that would `improve access, student success and progression among people from under-represented and disadvantaged groups‘. The evidence of the last five years is that participation rates at many of the Russell Group institutions listed above have not changed at all. The reason for this is simple: the members of senior management at these institutions simply do not careabout widening participation.

I emphasize that it’s the members of senior management who don’t care because I honestly believe that the majority of academic staff in these institutions (and indeed the rest of the higher education sector) do care a very great deal. Nowadays however the gulf between academics and managers is greater than ever

Some time ago I was interviewed for a job in senior management at one of the institutions in the table above. During the course of the interview I was asked, among many other things, what I thought the University needed to do better. Without hesitation I said `widening participation’. The members of the panel stared at me as if I’d taken leave of my senses. The institution concerned was doing in well in league tables and recruiting students and saw no reason to try to make itself more open. When asked why I thought it was so important, I said I thought it was a moral responsibility. What I meant was that I think universities should be run for the public good, not just for the good of people who went to a posh school. That received even more uncomprehending stares than my original statement.

I didn’t get that job. I’m not saying it was because of the way I answered that question. I’m sure there were plenty of other reasons not to employ me, but that is the part of the interview I remember most vividly. I had prepared a list of ideas (including foundation programmes, measures to boost graduate employability, work placements, schools liaison, etc), some of which I’d borrowed from my (then) employer, the University of Sussex (which was – and is – very good at widening participation), but I had wasted my time. They weren’t interested.

The current system of ‘Access Agreements’ clearly isn’t working for these institutions and there is no effective sanction to force them even to try to broaden participation. Until there is, they will continue not to care.

Parliament has recently enacted the Higher Education and Research Act (2017). This presented a great chance to tackle the failures described above but, as far as I can see, none of the new arrangements is likely to do anything to widen participation in the so-called `elite’ universities, so it’s been a wasted opportunity.




Clearing Advice for Physics and Astronomy Applicants!

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on August 18, 2016 by telescoper

Today’s the day! This year’s A-level results are out today, Thursday 18th August, with the consequent scramble as students across the country to confirm places at university. Good luck to all students everywhere waiting for your results. I hope they are what you expected!

For those of you who didn’t get the grades they needed, I have one piece of very clear advice:


The clearing system is very efficient and effective, as well as being quite straightforward to use, and there’s still every chance that you will find a place somewhere good. So keep a cool head and follow the instructions. You won’t have to make a decision straight away, and there’s plenty of time to explore all the options.

As a matter of fact there are a few places still left for various courses in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. Why should you choose Cardiff? Well, obviously I have a vested interest since I’m rejoining the University this September so I’m biased. However you could take into account that Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff is top of the Russell Group in the latest National Student Survey and that there are wonderful newly expanded and refurbished teaching spaces on site.

For further information check here!

The Russell Groupies

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on November 29, 2013 by telescoper

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.

Will University Swapping Work?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on October 21, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday’s crossword having been more straightforward than usual, I found myself with time to peruse the Independent newspaper at my leisure. While doing so I came across a little item describing a plan suggested by Lord Rees that students from “disadvantaged backgrounds” should be allowed to swap universities after two years of a three-year degree and transfer to a Russell group institution. Apparently this idea is based on a scheme that runs “successfully” in the University of California.

The purported aim of this is to give “a second chance” to students who didn’t do well enough at A-level to get into an “elite” university – which is laudable – but it doesn’t deal with the underlying problem, namely that our pre-university education system is a mess, for two reasons.  First, students can have the misfortune to attend a school where certain subjects are taught badly or not at all. This is a particular problem in my own field, physics. Second, the A-level examinations on which most institutions base their entry criteria do not provide a reasonable assessment of a candidate’s suitability for university study.

Because of these problems many students either don’t apply to top universities or fail to make the grades required. Such universities are reluctant to drop their grades to make special allowance because they would then get penalised in the league tables –  a high entry requirement at A-level is perceived to be a mark of quality. I’m convinced that this is a major flaw in the system. Some of the very best students I’ve had the pleasure to work with at Cardiff, for example, came in at a time when our recruitment team was struggling to meet its quota,  with modest A-level scores that would not normally have been high enough to get in. I worry a great deal about how many more talented young people there are out there who lacked that bit of luck and missed out entirely.

Lord Rees is correct in saying that it will take a very long time to fix the pre-university education system, and his proposal is an attempt to provide a sticking-plaster solution later on. If you like, it’s an admission of defeat. Elite universities will be allowed to carry on using inappropriate criteria to reject talented students applying to join the first year of a degree, but will be allowed to cherry-pick the best performers from other institutions into Year 3.

Although I think this proposal contains some good ingredients, there are several things about it that worry me. I don’t know how many students will want to move after two years in the first place. They will have made friends, formed relationships, and generally settled in at their original university and to up sticks in order to travel to another university for their final year would be very disruptive. Steps would have to be taken to ensure continuity of curriculum too. And what about the financial and other implications for the original institution, which would have to be prepared to lose an indeterminate number of its best students at the end of Year 2, with consequent impact on the quality of its graduating class?

I don’t think it’s fair for the so-called “elite” to exploit the hard work put in by other departments and institutions in order to mask its own failure to recruit appropriately. The only fair solution is to fix the university admission system, which means fixing our  broken A-levels.

And another thing. I’m shortly moving from Cardiff (which is a member of the Russell group) to Sussex (which isn’t).  Look at the league tables for Physics and tell me which one should be regarded as “elite”. Should students choose their University on the basis of which one provides the best education, or on the basis that it provides membership of a prestigious club?

On balance, I don’t think this scheme is workable in the way suggested. There is a variant, however, which I think is more promising. I think we should scrap the current confused system of 4-year undergraduate degrees (MPhys, MSci, etc) and adopt a standard system of 3-year Bachelors degrees. The next level of degree should be standalone postgraduate Masters. I’d prefer these to be two years, actually, but that’s not essential to this argument. Students could then transfer after their Bachelors’ degree into an “elite” university for their Masters if they so wish.

Open Admissions

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , on August 21, 2010 by telescoper

As I predicted  last week, the A-level results announced on Thursday showed another increase in pass rates and in the number of top grades awarded, although I had forgotten that this year saw the introduction of the new A* grade. Overall, about 27% of students got an A or an A*, although the number getting an A* varied enormously from one course to another. In Further Maths, for example, 30% of the candidates who took the examination achieved an A* grade.

Although I have grave misgivings about the rigour of the assessment used in A-level science subjects, I do nevertheless heartily congratulate all those who have done well. In no way were my criticisms of the examinations system intended to be criticisms of the students who take them and they thoroughly deserve to celebrate their success.

Another interesting fact worth mentioning is that the number of pupils taking A-level physics rose again this year, by just over 5%, to a total of just over 30,000. After many years of decline in the popularity of physics as an A-level choice, it has now grown steadily over the past three years. Of course not everyone who does physics at A-level goes on to do it at university, but this is nevertheless a good sign for the future health of the subject.

There was a whopping 11.5% growth in the number of students taking Further Mathematics too, and this seems to be part of a general trend for more students to be doing science and technology subjects.

The newspapers have also been full of  tales of a frantic rush during the clearing process and the likelihood that many well-qualified aspiring students might miss out on university places altogether. Part of the reason for this is that the government recently put the brake on the expansion of university places, but it’s not all down to government cuts. It’s also at least partly because of the steady increase in the performance of students at A-level. More students are making their offers than before, so the options available for those who did slightly less well than they had hoped very much more limited.

In fact if you analyse the figures from UCAS you will see that as of Thursday 19th August 2010, 383,230 students had been secured a place at university. That’s actually about 10,000 more than at the corresponding stage last year. There were about 50,000 more students eligible to go into clearing this year (183,000 versus 135,000 in 2009), but at least part of this is due to people trying again who didn’t succeed last year. Clearly they won’t all find a place, so there’ll be a number of very disappointed school-leavers around, but they also can try again next year. So although it’s been a tough week for quite a few prospective students, it’s not really the catastrophe that some of the tabloids have been screaming about.

I’m not directly involved in the undergraduate admissions process for the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, where I work, but try to keep up with what’s going on. It’s an extremely strange system and I think it’s fair to say that if we could design an admissions process from scratch we wouldn’t end up with the one we have now. Each year our School is given a target number of students to recruit; this year around 85. On the basis of the applications we receive we make a number of offers (e.g.  AAB for three A-levels, including Mathematics and Physics, for the MPhys programme). However, we have to operate a bit like an airline and make more offers than there are places. This is because (a) not all the people we make offers to will take up their offer and (b) not everyone who takes up an offer will make the grades.

In fact students usually apply to 5 universities and are allowed to accept one firm offer (CF) and one insurance choice (CI), in case they missed the grades for their firm choice. If they miss the grades for their CI they go into clearing. This year, as well as a healthy bunch of CFs, we had a huge number of CI acceptances, meaning we were the backup choice for many students whose ideal choice lay elsewhere. We usually don’t end up recruiting all that many students as CIs – most students do make the grades they need for their CF, but if they miss by a whisker the university they put first often takes them anyway. However, this year many of our CIs held CFs with universities we knew were going  to be pretty full, and in England at any rate, institutions are going to be fined if they exceed their quotas. It therefore looked possible that we might go over quota because of an unexpected influx of CIs caused by other universities applying their criteria more rigorously than they had in the past. We are, of course, obliged to honour all offers made as part of this process. Here in Wales we don’t actually get fined for overshooting the quota, but it would have been tough fitting excess numbers into the labs and organizing tutorials for them all.

Fortunately, our admissions team (led by Helen Hunt Carole Tucker) is very experienced at reading the lie of the land. As it turned out, the feared influx of CIs didn’t materialise, and we even had a dip into the clearing system to  recruit one or two good quality applicants who had fallen through the cracks elsewhere.  We seem to have turned out all right again this year, so it’s business as usual in October. In case you’re wondering, Cardiff University is now officially full up for 2010.

There’s a lot of guesswork involved in this system which seems to me to make it unnecessarily fraught for us, and obviously also for the students too! It would make more sense for students to apply after they’ve got their results not before, but this would require wholesale changes to the academic year. It’s been suggested before, but never got anywhere. One thing we do very well in the Higher Education sector is inertia!

I thought I’d end with another “news” item from the Guardian that claims that the Russell Group of universities – to which Cardiff belongs – operates a blacklist of A-level subjects that it considers inappropriate:

The country’s top universities have been called on to come clean about an unofficial list or lists of “banned” A-level subjects that may have prevented tens of thousands of state school pupils getting on to degree courses.

Teachers suspect the Russell Group of universities – which includes Oxford and Cambridge – of rejecting outright pupils who take A-level subjects that appear on the unpublished lists.

The lists are said to contain subjects such as law, art and design, business studies, drama and theatre studies – non-traditional A-level subjects predominantly offered by comprehensives, rather than private schools.

Of course when we’re selecting students for Physics programmes we request Physics and Mathematics A-level rather than Art and Design, simply because the latter do not provide an adequate preparation for what is quite a demanding course.  Other Schools no doubt make offers on a similar basis. It’s got nothing to do with  a bias against state schools, simply an attempt to select students who can cope with the course they have applied to do.

Moreover, speaking as a physicist I’d like to turn this whole thing around. Why is it that so many state schools do teach these subjects instead of  “traditional” subjects, including sciences such as physics?  Why is that so many comprehensive schools are allowed to operate as state-funded schools without offering adequate provision for science education? To my mind that’s a real, and far more insidious, form of blacklisting than what is alleged by the Guardian.