Sir David Watson: Russell Group is not all it’s cracked up to be

Senior scholar decries ‘divisive’ mission groups and government’s market focus

April 3, 2014

The Russell Group is a “dangerous” threat to the sector’s unity and does not represent the best universities, according to a leading academic expert on higher education.

Sir David Watson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, identified two key threats to the sector’s “controlled reputational range” in the coming wave of student expansion.

These were the government’s concern to ease the path for alternative providers and the “divisive behaviour of the sector itself, especially through the mission groups”, he told a seminar hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute in London on 26 March.

Sir David, who is also principal of Green Templeton College, Oxford, argued that in previous waves of expansion – such as that following the Robbins report and the transformation of polytechnics into universities in 1992 – the sector had safeguarded quality through its own shared commitment to academic standards.

He noted that the UK’s external examiner system, where academics are involved in marking and assessment at institutions other than their own, was “envied by other systems”.

On private providers, Sir David said the government’s approach was symptomatic of its wider view beyond higher education: a “fear that if the private sector is regulated to public sector standards it will simply not play”.

And in the context of the need to protect a “controlled reputational range” in the sector, he continued: “Particularly dangerous, I think, is the bottom half of the Russell Group…The problem with the Russell Group is that it represents neither the sector as a whole [nor], in many cases, the best of the sector.”

But the Russell Group had “convinced the politicians that it does play these roles”, Sir David added.

The Russell Group says it represents 24 “leading universities”. However, Sir David said that the claim was “a real stretch”, and cited high-performing research institutions, such as Soas, University of London, that are not members. He said that on a score of research intensity, there were dozens of other UK universities “above the bottom Russellers”.

Offering a vision of what unifies the sector in a talk he titled “Only Connect”, Sir David – who repeated his calls for student mobility between institutions via a credit transfer framework – said that academics teaching in UK higher education are “working to a core curriculum at a high level of generality”.

Across courses, this involved teaching students “a habit of thinking deeply and the capacity to empathise, to connect with other people”, he argued.

Meanwhile, government policy prioritises differentiation across the sector and its goal “seems to be to break it down” and “let the market decide”, Sir David added.

But he said people within the sector “refuse to behave” in this way. Academics “choose similar measures of esteem whatever institution they are working in”, “students refuse to be narrowly typecast as simply vocational or academic” and managers “keep most of their strategic options open”.

Sir David argued that people in the sector looking for unity “must look for it in the right places – it won’t simply be legislated into being”.

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