My eldest child will soon be turning ten and my wife and I have had to start thinking about his secondary school education. We’ve attended a few open days recently. They seem to run to a well tested format; a short speech by the Head, followed by a tour - frog dissections, bored history teachers and all!
But it’s the Head’s speeches that have intrigued me. In all cases they’ve talked about their schoool’s academic prowess. In two cases, at the academically strongest schools, the Heads boasted not just about the numbers making it to university but about the numbers making it into Russell Group universities. “Ahh, Russell Group universities!” you could almost hear the collective purring of two hundred ambitious North London parents.
In a relatively short period, the Russell Group has morphed from a supper club for vice chancellors at big, largely Civic universities with medical schools into a (near) consumer brand. Certainly the Head teachers didn’t feel they needed to explain what the Russell Group was to rooms full of parents.
My open day experiences sparked YouthSight’s recent HE Research Snippet; Has the Russell Group become a consumer brand?. It found that the majority of students (we interviewed a representative sample) were aware of at least one of the big five mission groups (Russell Group, 1994 Group, University Alliance, Million + and Guild HE); and of these, nearly all (94%) had heard of the Russell Group.But only 25% were aware of the 1994 Group, with between 18% and 8% awareness for the other groups. Even among students studying at non-Russell Group universities, the Russell Group was two, three, four or even five times better known than the mission group to which their own university belonged. When we asked students to describe the Russell Group in their own words, the vast bulk of responses focused on the perceived success of the member institutions. Sixty percent for example, described it as a group of “prestigious universities”. Other respondents focused on the research success of the Group while many described them as elite, requiring high entrance grades. However, one of the core objectives of the Group – to promote high quality teaching – was mentioned by virtually no-one.
So, far more than any other mission group, the Russell Group can lay claim to being well known (empirically, among students, anecdotally, among parents) and to having a distinctive identity (prestige). It’s clearly become the Premier League of universities. And that’s important. Because, increasingly, we live in a winner takes all society. While I’m not much of a football fan, I want to push the football analogy for a moment longer. Did you know that the average wage bill of Premiership teams is now five times greater than the next league down, the Championship. In the eighties the differential was 1.6x. In the nineties it was 2x. Winner takes all. Leaving football behind, recent research from economist Emmanuel Saez shows that the top 1% of American families captured over 90% of the income growth in the USA in 2010. The earnings gap between rich and poor Americans is currently the widest it’s been for more than four decades. Winner takes all. There are hundreds more examples.
I’m concerned that we will get the same effect in UK higher education in the next decade. The government has given HEIs licence to unlimited expansion of courses that can recruit students achieving ABB or better at A level. Of course, it’s the ‘prestigious universities’ that attract the students with the highest A-level grades. And we know the Russell Group has become a byword for prestige! What’s more, Michael Gove has recently proposed that the Russell Group help determine the content of the new A-level curriculum. Yet further endorsement of the new HE Premier League.
Of course, ‘winner takes all’ is a legitimate philosophy. But it brings with it the danger that the advantage it requires gets reinforced and potentially damages the capacity for HE to reach out and help those from non traditional backgrounds to make it. But, for many, it is a legitimate credo - 'to the victor goes the spoils.' So if ‘winner takes all’ is legitimate, it puts a focus on how the ‘winner’ is defined. The Premier League is the best league in the UK because it’s based on clear rules and transparent competitions. And most importantly, there’s a circulation of talent via the system of club promotion and relegation. But in higher education the system is far more opaque. The league tables published by the newspapers are, at least reluctantly, accepted by many as offering some degree of impartial measurement of esteem or success. Of course the tables have their critics (why should the proprietary formulas used by newspapers wield so much influence?) But they seem to carry a degree of consensus and salience with the community and at least allow the public to see that there are – at least occasionally – some universities that consistently keep on improving (witness Warwick’s rise over the years).
But in my understanding, the Russell Group isn’t based on league tables. It is a self selecting club. And, while it can boast membership of all of the ‘G5’ universities – Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Imperial and LSE – all institutions that enjoy global reputations, not all its members do so well. For example, The Guardian (which, according to our research, is the most important table for prospective students choosing where to study these days) ranks Russell Group university members across a broad range, from 1st to 53rd. Some of the institutions most would regard as 'big hitters' come in surprisingly low, with five institutions ranking 40th or below. Contrast that to the performance of members of the far less well known 1994 Group whose membership includes: Lancaster which ranks 7th in the same league tables, Loughborough which ranks 11th, Leicester which ranks 19th, UEA (24th), Sussex (27th) and SOAS (29th). It raises the question, is the Russell Group leaving itself open for critics to cry foul?
Of course, I know that the Russell Group has not engaged in much formal 'branding' over the years. Its reputation has been taken as self-evident. But, in fact, it has now tacitly become a brand, and the danger is that the brand will, over time, be identified as committing that ultimate brand sin, which is to be seen as being ‘inauthentic’. It may be time for the Group to acknowledge the reality of their status, take control and make it clear that not only does its membership cover a very wide range of institution types (from 1960s foundations to Ancients), but also includes institutions with a wide range of league table success. And maybe to work less on messaging ‘prestige’ and 'leading' and more on issues such as widening access and other campaigning issues. Without a more active ownership and indeed a clearer definition by the Group, it may leave itself open to the risk of simply not 'delivering the product advertised', and become far less relevant.
<span "font-size: 80%;">Ben Marks is Managing Director at YouthSight