HE Research Snippet 3 - Do Undergraduate Students Know What Mission Groups Are & How Is The Russel Group Perceived?


With the recent growth in membership of the Russell Group and following a series of departures from the 1994 Group (e.g. the universities of Bath and Surrey),

Higher Education Research Team at YouthSight
Higher Education Research Team at YouthSight

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With the recent growth in membership of the Russell Group and following a series of departures from the 1994 Group (e.g. the universities of Bath and Surrey), we thought it would be interesting to focus this month's HE Research Snippet on whether or not the Russell Group is changing from an industry-facing representative body into a ‘consumer brand’.

The Russell Group is one of five university member organisations (often referred to as mission groups or, in the case of million+, a think tank) representing the interests of various universities in the UK. In recent years the Russell Group’s public profile has grown and, anecdotally at least, it – more than any other mission group – seems to have become referenced widely by HE consumers and commentators (e.g. parents, students, employers, the press). It also appears to have become a byword for ‘elite’ (despite the fact that many would argue that not all the member institutions should be considered elite).

We wanted to assess the extent to which undergraduate students (the largest group of HE ‘consumers’) had heard of any mission groups at all (and, if so, which ones). And given the high profile of the Russell Group, we wanted to know how it is viewed1.

 

How well known are mission groups among students?

Mission groups aren’t universally recognised by students. As shown in Figure 1, only around half are aware of any mission groups at all. The best known is the Russell Group (50%) followed by the 1994 Group (13%) – see Figure 2. Amongst those students who have heard of any mission group, nearly all have heard of the Russell Group (94%). Only 25% have heard of the 1994 Group, followed by 16% who are aware of University Alliance and 8% who are aware of million+.

Which, if any, of the following have you heard of?- Russell Group, 1994 Group, University Alliance, million+ or Guild HE

Which, if any, of the following have you heard of?- Russell Group, 1994 Group, University Alliance, million+ or Guild HE
Base: 976 full time undergraduate students at UK HEIs, representative by gender, course year and university type, November 2012

 

Awareness of each mission group is generally highest among students attending that group’s member universities (see Figure 3). So, for example, awareness of the Russell Group is highest at Russell Group universities and awareness of the 1994 Group is highest at 1994 Group universities. However, more surprisingly, the Russell Group is by far and away the best recognised group regardless of university attended. So for example, while one in five students (20%) at University Alliance universities are aware of their institution’s mission group, 88% of the same students are aware of the Russell Group. If any mission group can lay claim to be a consumer brand, it must be the Russell Group.

Awareness of mission groups amongst students at each mission group
  Attend university in the...
Aware of... Russell
Group
%
1994
Group
%
University
Alliance
%
million+
%
Russell Group 99 99 88 85
1994 Group 29 42 13 16
University Alliance 13 15 20 16
million+ 9 7 9 7
Figure 3: Sat2 – Which, if any, of the following have you heard of? - Russell Group, 1994 Group, University Alliance, million+ or Guild HE
Base: November Student Omnibus; All full time undergraduate students at UK HEIs who had heard of at least one mission group [Russell Group students – 210, 1994 Group students – 67, million+ students - 61, University Alliance students – 86]

 

How is the Russell Group perceived?

In order to get an idea of how the Russell Group is perceived, we asked students who were aware of the Russell Group to describe it, unprompted, in their own words. As shown in Figure 4, the majority of these students believed the Russell Group to be an organisation of ‘prestigious universities’, while the next most common description was a group of ‘research focused’ institutions.

Interestingly, a key commitment of the Russell Group – to promote high quality teaching – was mentioned by very few. In fact, most students describe the Russell Group in relation to the perceived success of the member institutions. For example, one student described the Russell Group as ‘a group of the top universities in the UK, the UK's equivalent of the USA's Ivy League’, while another thought the Russell Group was made up of ‘the UK's most elite, academically capable universities’. However, for a few students, the Russell Group evoked negative connotations relating to perceived elitism. One student thought the Russell Group was ‘an elitist posh boy university group for . . . people born into rich families’, and another claimed Russell Group institutions ‘only accept those with a private education or buckets of cash’.

Perceptions of the Russell Group
  %
Prestigious universities 60
Research focused 26
Elite/high entrance requirements 12
Ancient universities 7
Red brick universities 6
Contains Oxbridge 4
Receive research funding 3
Figure 4: How would you describe the Russell Group?
Base: November Student Omnibus; All full time undergraduate students at UK HEIs who were aware of the Russell Group - 544)

 

Conclusions

The Russell Group is clearly a well-known brand amongst students. Indeed, almost all of the 53% of students who are aware of any mission group at all, have heard of it. Student awareness of the 1994 Group, University Alliance and million+ is far lower even when a student attends a university belonging to a particular mission group. The Russell Group is perceived as being a group of prestigious, research focused and elite universities. Students do not generally associate the Group with providing or promoting high quality teaching, despite this being one of its key objectives.

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