It’s time to stop conflating the Russell Group with the ‘best’

For all its insight (geddit?), I wasn’t too pleased when I saw the recent report from the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) into their latest nudge. The one that encourages students to apply to selective universities.

I’m not upset because the intervention works; I’m not against encouraging school pupils to aim for universities with the highest entry tariffs. I am, however, disappointed that rather than use actual measures of selectivity in admissions, the report uses membership of the Russell Group as the proxy for selectivity.

This is hardly the first time that this mistake has been made. The Department for Education continues to procure and publish work which makes this error. When it comes to school data reporting, it uses Russell Group as a marker of performance in its official statistics. But those wonks working in education policy – in DfE and elsewhere – should know better. Why do we accept the persistent, but unverified, claim that Russell Group membership is synonymous with ‘best’?

There are, of course, other measures of selectivity. Ones which don’t rely on membership of a secretive and exclusive club. When it comes to official measures, we could use data from UCAS which can give specific, verifiable and flexible (i.e. responsive to any year-to-year changes) data on which universities actually take the students with the highest grades.

This might sound like I’m being harsh to BIT. While DfE needs to take the blame for publishing such research, we should also question the project’s design. The report acknowledges that “… the Russell Group is not a perfect proxy for selective universities (there are many selective universities outside the grouping).” But it then goes on to say “… given that the letters did not mention the Russell Group specifically, it seems a good proxy for aiming at more selective institutions.” Given that the study used UCAS data to see where students applied, why didn’t it use a better measure for selectivity?

I realise that the term Russell Group has common currency, and is used casually to refer to ‘elite’ universities. I get that most people can’t name all twenty-four member institutions off the top of their heads. But if you know – and surely BIT and DfE know – that the group is self-selecting, and self-serving (it’s a mission group, why would it not exist to serve its members?), how can you reasonably use it as a proxy selectivity?

This debate has been rumbling on for years, and it’s time that we stopped accepting the lazy use of ‘mission group equals X’. If you’re not going to take my word that the grouping is arbitrary, there’s Vikki Boliver’s 2015 paper to read.

And as an aside, if you thought that the situation we’re in is a result of the work of the group itself, perhaps reconsider. There’s more scrutiny applied to its members as a result of membership, for example (and not unreasonably) on measures of access and widening participation. But selective universities outside the Russell Group arguably get less scrutiny. This is all the more reason that we should use the actual data on selectivity of institutions, and use it to increase the quality of the higher education debate.

40 responses to “It’s time to stop conflating the Russell Group with the ‘best’

  1. Thanks you for this. I have been arguing a similar case for some time based on a variety of excellences. But, as Howard Newby has said, the English [and he was specific] have a genius for turning diversity into hierarchy. Fitness for purpose as a criterion has to recognise a diversity of purposes, and for most undergraduate applicants, who now pay most of most universities’ income, that gives teaching and support to learning priority over research [maybe that is why Chris Husbands gives this a thumbs up]: their value for money ratings have been going down in the years since fees became full cost plus. That is another quality criterion, on which many HEIs outside the Russell Group score more highly than some of those within it.

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