Sponsored feature - words by Mat Fidge

The Russell Group’s self-proclaimed status as the leading lights of UK universities certainly has created a halo around them.

It seems that, increasingly, for many university applicants it is a desperate case of Russell Group or bust!

Whilst there is no doubt about the quality of research, teaching and facilities at Russell Group universities, the halo that they have polished so brightly may be blinding applicants to the promise and quality of other institutions.
Are the smoke and mirrors that promote the Russell Group clouding university applicants’ judgements?

Let’s try and clear the air a little.

The pervasive power of the Russell Group

The Russell Group has become a well-oiled marketing machine and a powerful brand.

It’s understandable, then, that a good university can become equated with a choice from just 24 institutions.

Understandable, but palpably not true.

Maybe you have heard something like this from those around you?

‘I think you should apply for a Russell Group uni.’

Career Advisor

‘Yes, of course, we’re hoping she’ll get into a Russell.’


‘He’s just so non-Russell material!’


Yet, just because a brand has converted so many awe-struck believers, and recruited such powerful influencers, it doesn’t mean you have to take its self-proclaimed virtues as self-evident truths.

Let’s take a look at the reality of the Russell Group and reconsider just what you should be looking for in a university.

What is the Russell Group?

In myth:

The Russell Group represents the elite of UK universities.

In fact:

The Russell Group is a self-selected association of 24 public research universities. There is no objective reason for this grouping.

The Russell Group is a gentleman’s club. It is a self-promoting marketing group that has come to be treated as an objective measure of quality.
Anonymous Vice Chancellor, reported by the BBC

In myth:

The Russell Group represent universities that lead the field, and get all the funding, for academic research.

In fact:

The vast majority of funding continues to go to Oxford and Cambridge, and the rest of the Russell Group receive similar amounts to a number of other universities.

The Russell Group features so prominently in the discourse about what it means to be a top university and they have been very successful at marketing that brand, but that’s not borne out by the evidence.

Dr Boliver, Durham University

Turning the tables

The university league tables offer a more balanced way to assess the experience at, and the credentials of, universities.

Among the most respected measures are the annual results published by the NSS (which measures National Student Satisfaction) and the Guardian (which considers funding, satisfaction and job prospects amongst other factors).

According to the Guardian league tables:
22 universities rank above the lowest of the 24 Russell Group.
This gives the top 50 a roughly equal split between Russell Group and others.

So you are effectively missing out on some world-class education if you believe the hype.

According to the NSS league tables:
Not one Russell Group university appears in the top 10.
In the top 45 universities only 9 are Russell Group – 80% of the best universities in terms of student satisfaction are not.

With five Russell Group universities not even making the top 100, if feeling satisfied with your education is a priority there are plenty of other strong contenders for your application.

It is quite mysterious that people choose low ranked Russell Group institutions with poor student satisfaction. UEA not only attracts a much broader social mix than most of the Russell Group, it also produces consistently strong student satisfaction and highly cited research - meaning we attract the brightest.
Professor Richard Harvey, Academic Director for Admissions, UEA

From the forums...

“I did [postgraduate] music at [a non-Russell Group university] and found the university to be just as good as the Russell Group one I went to for my undergraduate.

Good facilities, good teaching, access to opportunities, amazing city to study/live in.”

TSR member beautifulbigmacs

Horses for courses

There is no doubt that the Russell Group represent some excellent universities. It’s just that their pervasive branding can blind you when choosing a university.

We spoke to Jess Brown, a Literature student at UEA.

I chose UEA over a Russell Group university because they offered exactly the course I wanted to study within a well-recognised department: UEA's American Studies department is one of the best in the country.

When you know you're going to be paying tens of thousands of pounds for your studies it is vital that you choose the right course, rather than selecting a university based on marketing tactics.

Most universities are research driven anyway, so I just fail to see what is so unique about the Russell Group.

What matters about your university experience is your grades and what you've done outside of your lectures, not whether you went to a university that is part of an arbitrary group.

Jess Brown, student at UEA

What Jess highlights is that there are many other factors to consider when choosing a university than its own publicity.

Just as UEA offered Jess the perfect course you may find just the right course for you outside the cloistered confines of the Russell Group. Bournemouth University, for example, is one of the leading places to study animation and digital effects.

Other factors influencing your choice may include how far it is from your home, the price of the course, whether you can spend a year abroad or whether the surrounding area looks attractive for a three-year stay.

Just the job?

And, of course, there are career prospects at the end of your study.

Much has been made of a ‘halo’ effect on career prospects that the Russell Group is said to possess. Yet, when it comes to getting a job, factors such as your grades, experience and interview will be much more likely to determine your success.

In addition you can consider the actual record of your university in supporting your employability. For instance, Aston University has recently consistently ranked above Oxford in terms of employability, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

The assumption that Russell Group Universities have the best experience and outcomes for students really isn’t borne out by the evidence, not only do many of us out-perform them in tables like the NSS, but we also deliver in many other areas.

Aston out-performs the likes of Cambridge and Oxford for partnerships with employers. Our relationships with business and industry, and our placement year, make us a very different proposition to a Russell Group institution.”
Etta Parkes, Director of Student Employability, Aston University

Don’t believe the hype

Choosing to attend a university is an investment that you make in your future. It is important that you make your decision with your eyes wide open and try not to be blinded by the so-called leading lights.

Choose the course and the university that is right for you.

And don’t believe the hype!