Most Russell Group universities ‘little different to other pre-92s’

Study argues that, while Oxford and Cambridge stand apart, rest of mission group does not live up to ‘elite’ tag

November 18, 2015
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Standing out: Oxbridge is ‘head and shoulders’ above the Russell Group set

The elite status of the Russell Group has been questioned by research which suggests that most of its members have more in common with other pre-92 institutions than they do with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

The mission group claims to represent 24 “leading UK universities” and has significant influence on policymaking but Vikki Boliver, senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at Durham University, said that this prestigious position was not based on evidence.

In an article for the Oxford Review of Education, Dr Boliver analyses data on research activity, teaching quality, economic resources, academic selectivity and socio-economic exclusivity.

She finds that, far from the Russell Group emerging as an elite cadre, it is Oxford and Cambridge only that stand apart. The other 22 members sit in a second tier with 17 other “old” universities – more than half of all the other pre-92 institutions – including all but one of the former 1994 Group.

Dr Boliver told Times Higher Education that, according to her analysis, it was “not really accurate” to describe the Russell Group as UK higher education’s elite.

“Oxford and Cambridge are head and shoulders above the rest but the rest of the Russell Group are really quite similar to many other old universities,” she said. “The Russell Group features so prominently in the discourse about what it means to be a top university and they have been very successful at marketing that brand, but that’s not borne out by the evidence.”

Teaching quality ‘similarities’

Dr Boliver’s article, “Are there distinctive clusters of higher and lower status universities in the UK?”, says that Oxford and Cambridge receive about 70 per cent more research income on average than the second division of universities, and have five times as much endowment and investment income.

They typically recruit students with four A* grades at A level, compared with three in the next tier, have a rate of students achieving firsts or 2:1s that is about 10 percentage points higher, and are significantly more exclusive: the proportion of students recruited from higher social class backgrounds is about 10 percentage points higher, and the proportion coming from private schools is twice as high at 34.9 per cent, compared with 16.1 per cent.

The main area of similarity is teaching quality, as judged by National Student Survey results and the value-added score used in The Guardian university rankings.

Dr Boliver argues that the second tier is distinct, in turn, from a third grouping made up of the remaining 13 old universities and 54 post-92 institutions, including all but one University Alliance member.

Compared with the third tier, the second division receives three and a half times as much research income; has research outputs that were typically judged “internationally excellent” rather than “internationally recognised” in the 2008 research assessment exercise; and has six times as much income. Compared with three A*s at A level in the second tier, students entering the third tier typically have three Bs, and only 3.6 per cent come from private schools, compared with 16.1 per cent in the second division.

There is a fourth tier, made up of 19 post-92 institutions, many of which are members of Million+ or GuildHE. These are, again, significantly differentiated from the third division institutions.

But, in a finding that could have implications for the planned teaching excellence framework, Dr Boliver finds that, across all bands, there is much less differentiation in teaching quality scores than there is in other areas.

Vikki Boliver's "four tiers" for UK universities

Cluster 1  Cluster 2 Cluster 3 Cluster 4
University of Cambridge University of Aberdeen Abertay University Anglia Ruskin University
University of Oxford University of Bath Aberystwyth University Bishop Grosseteste University
  University of Birmingham Arts University Bournemouth University College Birmingham
  University of Bristol University of the Arts London University of Bolton
  Cardiff University Aston University Bucks New University
  University of Dundee Bangor University University of Cumbria
  Durham University Bath Spa University University of East London
  University of East Anglia University of Bedfordshire Edge Hill University
  University of Edinburgh Birmingham City University Glyndwr University
  University of Exeter Bournemouth University Leeds Trinity University
  University of Glasgow University of Bradford Liverpool Hope University
  Goldsmiths, University of London University of Brighton London Metropolitan University
  Heriot-Watt University Brunel University London University of Wales, Newport (now University of South Wales)
  Imperial College London Canterbury Christ Church University University of St Mark and St John
  University of Kent Cardiff Metropolitan University Southampton Solent University
  King’s College London University of Central Lancashire University Campus Suffolk
  Lancaster University University of Chester University of Wales Trinity Saint David
  University of Leeds University of Chichester University of Wolverhampton
  University of Leicester City University London York St John University
  University of Liverpool Coventry University  
  University College London University for the Creative Arts  
  London School of Economics De Montfort University  
  Loughborough University University of Derby  
  University of Manchester Edinburgh Napier University  
  Newcastle University University of Essex  
  University of Nottingham Falmouth University  
  Queen Mary University of London University of Glamorgan (now University of South Wales)  
  Queen’ University Belfast Glasgow Caledonian University  
  University of Reading University of Gloucestershire  
  Royal Holloway, University of London University of Greenwich  
  University of St Andrews Harper Adams University  
  Soas, University of London University of Hertfordshire  
  University of Sheffield University of the Highlands and Islands  
  University of Southampton University of Huddersfield  
  University of Strathclyde University of Hull  
  University of Surrey Keele University  
  University of Sussex Kingston University  
  University of Warwick Leeds Beckett University  
  University of York University of Lincoln  
    Liverpool John Moores University  
    London South Bank University  
    Manchester Metropolitan University  
    Middlesex University  
    Newman University  
    University of Northampton  
    Nottingham Trent University  
    Northumbria University  
    Oxford Brookes University  
    Plymouth University  
    University of Portsmouth  
    Queen Margaret University  
    Robert Gordon University  
    University of Roehampton  
    University of Salford  
    Sheffield Hallam University  
    Staffordshire University  
    University of Stirling  
    University of Sunderland  
    Swansea University  
    Teesside University  
    Ulster University  
    University of the West of England  
    University of West London  
    University of the West of Scotland  
    University of Westminster  
    University of Winchester  
    University of Worcester  


Print headline: Majority in Russell Group are like other pre-92s

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Reader's comments (4)

Complete rubbish. Clearly, you cannot put the likes of Imperial, LSE etc. in the same bracket as most of those in cluster 2 in terms of strength of research, student destinations (good jobs, not just any job, and further study at the top institutions), standing of academics on a pound-for-pound basis and so on. Anyone in the know would also argue that those institutions named above, and a few others, are as good as anywhere (yes, even Oxbridge) for what they specialise in.
And it is a surprise, of course, to learn that this research places Durham in its right position in the elite cluster.
At least in terms of research quality and academic impact, these results are pretty much correct, but they are not new. See the article by Z. Corbyn (Times Higher Education No.1,940 (25-31 March, 2010) p.17) which states "when the five "golden-triangle" institutions - the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London and the London School of Economics - are removed from the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, the 1994 Group of smaller research-led universities outperforms it." The reasons for this were given in [Kenna & Berche, Critical masses for academic research groups and consequences for higher education research policy and management, OECD journal Higher Education Management and Policy, 23 (2011) 9-29]. It has to do with critical mass - there is a size, which is discipline dependent, above which research groups tend to fragment. This is a type of “Dunbar number”. As stated in our paper, "The condition for smaller universities to produce top-quality research is that they contain research groups of sizes above the upper critical masses appropriate to their respective disciplines." This is all backed up using RAE data and citation-count data. It is interesting that Vikki Boliver’s paper extends this to other data sets.
The references and kinks for my previous Comment are: Corbyn, Z. (2010) The Corbyn article was in relation to a paper by Adams and Gurney available here: The Kenna & Berche paper is available here:


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