Despicable old me. Being stupid, I love earwigging the conversations of the clever, so I enjoyed a recent exchange between several people whom, I’m pretty sure, most would consider significantly above average in intelligence. With each of them holding at least two degrees, the discussion spiralled around the universities they’d attended – all reputable and established and, strikingly, only one a member of the original Russell Group. The remainder belonged to the, now dissolved, 1994 Group.
‘Russell Group’ has become the phrase du jour on the lips of ambitious sixth-formers, many of whom believe that the world affords a warmer welcome to the chronically flatulent than it does to non-RG graduates. And why wouldn’t they? Mindful that league tables record numbers of RG-bound leavers, plenty of schools have taken to scaring the bejaysus out of their students with tales of the manifold woes that will be heaped upon those who apply elsewhere. And thus are mythologies, engendered as much by the imaginative deficiencies of politicians as they are by reality, sustained – stories that, in part, explain why four of the ex-1994 Group universities attended by my acquaintances have, within the last couple of years, paid very sizeable membership fees to join t’other club.
As educators, we vaunt the importance of fact over prejudice, in the classroom and in policy-making. So, a couple of facts on the founding of the Russell Group. Named after the Hotel Russell, and not Great Uncle Bertrand, this self-selecting group only admitted members that were: a) research-led; b) affiliated with a medical school; and c) above a certain size.
And that, pretty much, was it.
A number of very credible, research-intensive universities that one might assume to have been pillars of the Russell Group were, in fact, not so: not because they lacked the academic chops but because of their student numbers and/or range of faculties. And, lo, the 1994 Group was born. Most British universities, incidentally, have belonged to neither association.
However, the belief persists that the Russell Group comprises top-flight universities only: the most leading institutions as opposed to just, well, leading ones. That’s certainly the public perception, the belief of all those students summarily dismissing (some superb) non-RG institutions as domains of the no-hoper, and the view of a political class that self-effacingly assumes the almae matres that spawned their own good selves to be bywords for excellence.
Two or three RG universities do, indeed, score consistently highly in national and global rankings, achieving top-ten places within both. The other member institutions, however, are largely within the top 200 globally – the top 350 in a couple of cases. As those experienced in the decorative crafts can attest, glitter migrates easily; rubbing shoulders with the scintillating is a pretty reliable way of embellishing one’s own lapels. Although I’m sure their mothers love them dearly, would it be entirely wide of the mark to suggest that some of the Russell Group’s universities have benefited from the branding-by-association that membership confers?
So, if it’s not necessarily a collection of the toppermost, what is the Russell Group? In short, it’s a protectionist body, whose other attraction is the clout it wields in lobbying for research funds. And, it has to be said, it is very successful at this, as most of the UK’s research grants end up in its hands. In a distribution of resources reminiscent of apartheid-era South Africa, the 15% of UK universities that comprise the group are awarded roughly 75% of available funding. No surprise, then, that “68% of the UK’s very best (‘world leading’) research takes place in the Russell Group’s 24 universities”. That’s not just a pre-requisite for membership; it’s a consequence thereof.
Given these statistics, one could, perhaps, see the fervour with which some schools shepherd their students toward RG destinations as in the latter’s best interests. (Throw some industrial-strength cheating into the mix, amass the choicest teachers to write the applicants’ personal statements for them, and watch the offers roll in.) But the case remains that, in doing so, they also pander to, and perpetuate some, ill-informed prejudices: for, as unlikely as it may seem at times, parents and students often follow where schools lead.
At one end of the spectrum, this results in sixth-formers being actively discouraged from applying to excellent universities outside the group, even though these may be better attuned to their choices of degree subject and career aspirations. At the other end, we have situations such as that experienced by a former colleague at an ‘outstanding’ school. In charge of the careers curriculum, he was asked to ensure that the sixth-form destinations documented in the forthcoming school prospectus contained minimum proportions of Russell Group universities and entrants reading medicine or law. Or, to put it another way, he was asked to lie. He refused, the list appeared anyway and my colleague decided to become an ex-colleague.
Having taught in some highly-regarded schools, both state and private, I would have been delighted to hear of the very brightest students applying to fantastic universities outside the Russell Group. And, I was, often, because back then many of them did – having made their decisions with reference to subjects and relevant faculties, rather than to more nebulous notions of reputation or group affiliation. Just imagine the pattern trickling down: parents actively seeking out schools in the PiXL Club (‘Partners in eXceLlence’, apparently), assuming all of its members to be, well, eXceLlent. What else would they be?
So, blessed are those who get to be geeks. I’m glad they’re getting something: they have a hell of a time…