Should I choose a Russell Group university?

If you've started looking at where to study in the UK you may have come across the term Russell Group. Quite often you'll see it defined as the equivalent of the 'Ivy League' or referred to as the 'top tier' of UK universities. But, what exactly is the Russell Group and should it be something you consider when choosing where to study?

To answer that question let's first take quick look at how and why the Russell Group formed.

When and why was the Russell Group formed?

Until 1992 there were 'universities' and 'polytechnics' in the UK. Polytechnics tended to offer degrees which were more 'applied' or 'vocational' and universities delivered more 'academic' degeees. However, in 1992 the polytechnics gained 'university status'. They renamed themselves; dropping the word polytechnic and adding the word university to their titles.

For example, Liverpool Polytechnic became Liverpool John Moores University, Manchester Polytechnic became Manchester Metropolitan University, Anglia Polytechnic became Anglia Ruskin University and Leicester Polytechnic became De Montfort University.

Shortly after the former polytechnics gained university status, a number of vice-chancellors from 18 of the more traditional research-focused universities met in Hotel Russell (in Russell Square, London) and decided to form the Russell Group. This group acts as a kind of lobbying agency to represent the interests of research intensive universities, and the institutions it represents are often seen as the UK's top universities.

In reality, however, the best university for you and the subject you wish to study may, or may not, be a Russell Group university as you will see when you read on.

Which universities are members of the Russell Group?

There are now 24 universities that are members of the Russell Group.

They can be found in all areas of the UK and a full list can be found at the end of this article.

Are Russell Group universities better than non-Russell Group universities?

This has been a question of hot debate over the years, with many high schools encouraging students to apply to Russell Group universities and using acceptance of their students into a Russell Group institution as a proxi for their own quality level. However, it is extremely lazy to use 'Russell Group' as the primary 'quality indicator'.

Whilst all Russell Group universities are good universities, not all good universities are members of the Russell Group.

Take the latest university rankings published by the Complete University Guide: out of the top ten ranked universities, six are Russell Group members (Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Imperial, Durham, and UCL) and four are not (St Andrews, Loughborough, Lancaster and Bath).

Deciding on the right university is a very personal decision. Although you can be sure that Russell Group institutions have a strong reputation, you need to take into account a lot more than a university's membership of a self-selecting lobbying group. You should consider whether the university specialises in the subject you wish to study, whether it provides the right learning environment, the university's connections in the sector you wish to work, the cost of fees and, of course, the social environment around the university.

Are Russell Group universities the most research-intensive?

By definition all Russell Group universities are research-intensive. It would be easy, therefore, to conclude that non-Russell group univerities are not as research-intensive. However, nothing could be further from the truth. 

Russell Group members tend to be research-intensive across a wide range of academic areas (except specialist institutions like the London School of Economics). But, when it comes to individual research areas, non-Russell Group universities often out-perform their Russell Group counterparts.

Take reseach grant income last year:

  • The University of East Anglia (non-Russell Group) was the third largest recipient of research grant income for the biological sciences behind the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh;
  • The University of Reading (non-Russell Group) received more than twice as much research council income for environmental sciences than the University Cambridge;
  • The University of Essex (non-Russell Group) was the second largest recipient of research grants for economic and social sciences after University College London (UCL)
  • In terms of research grants focused on applied research and innovation, Cranfield University (non-Russell Group) was second only to the University of Manchester (which is 10 times as large by student enrollments).
  • The non-Russell Group universities of Strathclyde, Bath, Heriot Watt, Surrey and Loughborough are powerhouses when it comes to research in engineering and physical sciences.

So, if your aim is to undertake a research degree or to study in an environment where the academics are world leading in their fields then you shouldn't just look at Russell Group universities. Instead you should seek out impartial advice and research the best universities for your chosen subject.

Do Russell Group universities provide the best teaching?

The UK government uses the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to measure the quality of teaching in universities. This exercise has many critics but it does provide an interesting insight into the quality of teaching in the UK's universities.

The universities that perform the best in TEF are rated 'gold'. There are currently 77 UK universities rated as TEF gold and, of these, only 10 are Russell Group members.

It is not-entirely clear why this is. Russell Group universities often set the academic entry criteria for their students particularly high and they tend to have lower drop out rates amongst their students. Against this background it could be argued that students at Russell Group universities do not to require as much additional learning support compared to many other universities. Or, perhaps academics in certain Russell Group universities are motivated more to pursue world leading research than to teach a class of undergraduate students. There has also been evidence of some Russell Group universities, often benefitting from their 'prestige value', recruiting increasing numbers of international students - leading to growing class sizes.

Having said this, Russell Group universities often provide outstanding teaching. Although only 10 out of 24 Russell Group universities are ranked as 'gold', on the whole they score highly in student satisfaction surveys. 

Are Russell Group univerities the oldest universities in the UK?

There is often a belief that the Russell Group is a grouping of highly traditional, long-established universities. In fact, the UK hosts six ancient universities (which were established between 1098 and 1582), two of these ancient universities (St Andrews and Aberdeen) are not members of the Russell Group.

On the other hand, the Russell Group includes universities such as the University of York founded in 1963 and the University of Warwick founded in 1965. Many of its other members also only gained their official status as universities in the 1900s.

Not sure if Russell Group is for you?

If you've read this far, you'll see that choosing a university in the UK is not straight-forward. The right university for you may or may not be in the Russell Group. If you are applying to university through UCAS you can select up to five universities and you may opt for a mix of Russell Group and non-Russell Group.

The trick is to find the right university where you will thrive and where you will enjoy your time in the UK, make life-long friends and set yourself up for a successful future career. If you'd like to discuss the best university options for you get in touch with our team for a free consultation

**List of Russell Group universities **

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Rachel Burgon
Co-Founder & CEO
Published on 20 August 2020
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