Is the Russell Group really an 'oligarchy'?

Piggy bank with a mortar board Image copyright Thinkstock

The Russell Group, that most select of UK university groups, should be very pleased with its marketing success.

Schools all over the country will be organising trips to university open days - and teachers and parents will be talking to their ambitious pupils about applying to Russell Group universities, the magic circle of 24 leading institutions.

It has become a pervasive brand.

But not everyone is an admirer. There has been a distinct strand of opposition to the idea that this group should be seen as a premier league of higher education.

It's not a criticism of the individual institutions, but an irritation that belonging to a group, named after the London hotel where they used to meet, seems to have taken on a semi-official status.

And there are claims that such a self-selected top tier unfairly undermines the value of other non-Russell Group universities, which most students are going to attend.

The University Alliance this week cautioned against an over-emphasis on a narrow group of universities, saying that it stood in the way of social mobility.

'Oligarchy'

If that seemed like one vested interest taking a crack at another - then there have been critics from within its own membership.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Universities will be inviting young people to open days this term

Sir David Watson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, has warned that the rise of the Russell Group is a danger to the reputation of the wider university sector.

And he is unimpressed by the quality at the lower end of the Russell Group, suggesting that many other institutions are as good if not better.

A vice chancellor of another well-respected university explained privately why there was this undercurrent of irritation.

He described the Russell Group, in no uncertain terms, as the academic equivalent of an "oligarchy".

How is that? It seems a controversial charge.

"An oligarchy is a power structure in which power rests with a small number or people. It is usually interpreted negatively as an abuse of power and control and the disenfranchising of the majority of players in a system... This seems to me to match well the position of the Russell Group in UK higher education."

The vice chancellor says that the Russell Group is a "self-promoting marketing group" - but it has come to be treated as an objective measure of quality.

He argues that many universities and individual departments outside the Russell Group are as good as those on the inside, but there is no way for them to join this "gentleman's club".

"It is a blatant exercise in exclusivity, with the primary objective of cornering the market in resources and political influence."

When it comes to young people and parents looking at university choices, he says the public perception of status is "extremely poisonous".

If one group is established as representing the top universities - then does that blight everyone else as a second-rate option?

The Russell Group can afford to take a rather lofty view of all this.

It argues that if it succeeds as a lobbying group for large, high-performing, research-intensive universities, then that's not being an oligarch, it's being an effective advocate for its member universities.

It can't really be blamed for fighting its own corner - or if its arguments are persuasive to government.

The Russell Group says that it is not going to be shy about saying that its members are excellent universities, with a combination of high-quality research, teaching and facilities. The member universities claim a combined economic output of more than £32bn per year.

And in terms of social mobility, Russell Group universities invest plenty of time and money in outreach projects.

Perhaps what these angry murmurings about the Russell Group really show is how much the landscape has changed. League tables and brands really matter - even if universities don't accept how they're labelled.

Is the Russell Group brand a strength or a weakness for the UK's higher education system?

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