To join the 'Russellers', we must round up a rather classier crew

Alasdair Smith overhears a high-powered conversation with top university executives keen on widening their access to the 'elite'

April 26, 2012

Credit: Paul Bateman

Vice-chancellor: Four universities are leaving the 1994 Group to join the Russell Group and we're left behind. This is a bloody disaster.

Registrar: Elegantly put as usual, vice-chancellor. What do you think we should do?

V-c: Steve Smith says that the new policy on AAB students was the "game-changer" for Exeter. Maybe I could try to get elected as president of Universities UK and discuss with the government another game-changing policy shift that would induce the "Russellers" to take us, too?

R: That might be a very long game, and in any case it's unworthy of you to imply that a president of UUK could be influenced by the interests of his own institution. That's unthinkable. You would have to represent the interests of the whole sector in the unlikely event that you persuaded your fellow leaders to elect you.

V-c: Should I point out to the Russellers that we are way above Liverpool in every league table and argue our way in on that basis?

R: A couple of problems with that line, vice-chancellor. If the Russell Group accepted an application from every university that is above Liverpool in a league table, God knows how many they'd have to admit. Arguing that we are stronger than some of the existing members is not going to get us anywhere. Also, the Russellers know that most of the criteria used in the league tables are crap. There are only two serious criteria of excellence: research performance and quality of student entry.

V-c: We did better than Exeter in the research assessment exercise and our undergraduate entrants' A-level scores are better than those at Queen Mary.

R: Yes, but we're below Exeter in A-level scores and below Queen Mary in the RAE. Our planning officer is still trying to work out the formula that the Russell Group might have used to decide that it would accept the "favoured four"; but he's having difficulty running the relevant data through his multinomial logit model. Myself, I don't think it's about a formula: it's about protecting a brand that is particularly valuable to the weaker Russellers. Lazy journalists always refer to the Russell Group as the elite, but outside the "golden pentangle" its members are no stronger on average than their 1994 Group peers, especially if you take account of their habit of hiding a good proportion of their staff from research assessment. By cherry-picking the two 1994 Group institutions with the highest admissions standards and two of those with the highest research assessment scores, the Russell Group has neutralised the most serious threats to its claimed elite status.

V-c: Basically then, we've got to raise our research ranking or our A-level entry scores before we can submit our application to join?

R: Exactly. The next research assessment is some years off and is a bit of a lottery anyway, so we need to look at what we can do about these A-level scores.

V-c: Durham and Exeter are really no better at teaching than we are. Why can't we attract the same applicants as them?

R: The planning officer points out that there is a very strong correlation between A-level entry scores and the proportion of undergraduates recruited from private schools. Durham and Exeter stick out from the rest of the 1994 Group in having higher entry scores and a smaller proportion of state school entrants: Durham takes less than 60 per cent of its UK undergraduates from state schools, and Exeter less than 70 per cent; almost all the rest of the 1994 Group take more than 80 per cent. We need more private school students.

V-c: Won't Les Ebdon and the Office for Fair Access nuke us if we do that?

R: Don't worry about old Les. In the week it was announced that most Russell Group institutions had missed their widening-participation targets, the funding council confirmed that it was changing the funding of teaching in a way that favours the Russell Group, and on government instructions was also changing the research funding formula to the advantage of the Russell Group. The following week, Michael Gove proposed to give the Russell Group special status in the design of A levels. That adds up to a pretty clear message about the real incentives for widening participation, don't you think?

V-c: So we have to put more effort into recruiting overprivileged students who aren't bright or diligent enough to get three As despite all the money poured into their private education but who manage to scrape two As and a B. They are probably a lot less sharp than the students who get an A and two Bs in struggling comprehensives and come to us, but needs must. Where can we find the recruiting team to send out to the fee-paying schools?

R: Our excellent widening-participation team can be retasked: I propose that we discreetly change their mission to that of widening access to membership of the Russell Group.

V-c: Registrar, you are brilliant. You know, I feel better already.

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