The Russell Group’s four new members have each agreed to pay a joining fee of £500,000, Times Higher Education can reveal.
Queen Mary, University of London and the universities of Durham, Exeter and York announced in March last year that they were leaving the 1994 Group to join the Russell Group. At the time, no mention was made of a joining fee, but a Freedom of Information request to the four institutions by THE has revealed that each has agreed to pay an extra £100,000 a year to the group over the next five years.
This means that their annual subscriptions over that period will be £159,000, compared with about £22,000 paid by 1994 Group members.
A spokeswoman for the Russell Group (which the quartet officially joined last August) said it had sought the extra contributions “to cover the one- off costs of the expansion and in recognition of the investment…made by existing members when developing the organisation”.
In a statement, Queen Mary agrees that the elevated fee is “appropriate” in light of existing members’ “previous investment”.
Minutes of a meeting of the institution’s senior executive held on 13 March 2012 state that the magnitude of the fee was “questioned” but ultimately accepted.
The executives agreed “as it reflected the immediate benefits that joining institutions would accrue, based on the work of the Russell Group since its inception”.
The mission group has 15 full-time equivalent staff and now has 24 university members. On this basis, its income from membership fees this year is likely to be just over £1.8 million. This compares with just under £250,000 for the 1994 Group, which now has just 11 members after the universities of St Andrews, Bath, Surrey and Reading withdrew last year in the wake of the exodus to the Russell Group.
A spokesman for the University of York said: “The Russell Group is a well- staffed and highly effective organisation that speaks clearly on behalf of the top universities in the UK. In addition, it provides high-quality advice and support for its members. Taking these points together, we believe the subscription fee charged…to new members represents value for money.”
A spokesman for the University of Exeter said: “Membership of the Russell Group is a brand asset…so it is well worth the cost of joining.”
Soon after the move was announced, Exeter’s vice-chancellor, Sir Steve Smith, told THE that the university’s “research strength” and high proportion of students with AAB A-level grades not subject to an admissions cap made the Russell Group a “more natural fit”.
The price is right?
Rob Cuthbert, professor of higher education management at the University of the West of England, said that “clubs [for] rich universities” were “like shops where if you have to ask the price you can’t afford it”.
“The new members of the Russell Group obviously think it is worth diverting nearly 60 student fees from teaching and learning to advertise their exclusivity,” he added. “The surprise is not so much the price but that the Russell Group chose to make itself less exclusive.”
He contrasted this with the Association of American Universities, which represents top US and Canadian institutions, noting that in 2011 it expelled the University of Nebraska and Syracuse University had “jumped before it was pushed”, with only Boston University being invited to join in recent years.
He said that exclusivity worked against the integrated university system required by the “public good”.
By calling its 2012 report Jewels in the Crown, the Russell Group showed disregard for the rest of the UK higher education sector, Professor Cuthbert said, adding: “The other mission groups take a more inclusive approach by arguing their members are distinctive rather than separate from the rest.”
John Holmwood, co-founder of the Campaign for the Public University, agreed: “It is clear that the Russell Group feels that it needs a large ‘fighting fund’. It is a pity that it doesn’t fight for university education in general, but only for the narrow interests of its members.
“No doubt [the money] will be used to lobby for the lifting of the fee cap or the lowering of the repayment threshold for loans: something that will have a detrimental effect on all students…not just its own.”