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.