Friday, 16 March 2018

Questioning the Cartel

Hotel Russell: Post-1892 (image: Tony Hisgett CC BY 2.0)
Anyone whose children are applying to go to secondary school will have been handed glossy prospectuses, with staged photos and talk of inspiring teaching and excellent facilities. Ignore all that and head for the back, where there are data on the destination of the leavers, showing how many have gone on to tertiary education and, of those, how many went to Russell Group universities.

The term is casually used as a shorthand for excellence, a sort of kitemark. There is an unspoken understanding that, while all those going on to universities are to be celebrated, only those going to RG universities matter. And I think that’s dangerous for UK higher education as a whole.

A millennium of growth

The UK has some 132 universities. The oldest are the six ‘ancient’ universities of Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In the nineteenth century they were joined by the federalised universities of London and Wales, and the University of Durham, before a wider expansion of ‘red brick’ civic universities before the first world war and after the second.

In the sixties the Robbins Report led the way to the creation of ‘plate glass universities’, which almost doubled the total number of universities to 45, as well as the establishment of polytechnics.

Polytechnics generally focussed on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, and had a more practical curriculum. They usually had a lower tariff for entrance, and didn’t have their own degree awarding powers. As such, they were often seen as somewhat second tier. There was, then, a binary divide between ‘unis’ and ‘polys’.

From binary to binary

The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 tried to end this divide by allowing polytechnics to gain university status. Within a few years all of them had. The move was met by disbelief and dismay among many in the older universities: disbelief that the ‘ex-polys’ had the audacity to pretend that they were good enough to be universities, and dismay that the public - and particularly future students - may mistake them as such.

Within a year The Times had compiled the first league table of UK universities, ‘The Good University Guide’. The use of the adjective ‘good’ implies that there were some bad. Like a field guide to mushrooms you had to pick carefully; only certain ones were safe.

The disquiet was most febrile in the oldest universities, particularly those that had had between a century and a millennium to establish themselves. They were disconcerted by the upstarts and any suggestion of parity with them.

Two years after the Act, and a year after the Good University Guide, representatives from 17 of the oldest universities met at the Hotel Russell in Russell Square in London to form a lobbying group and promotional platform to protect its interests. The Russell Group was born.

Other groups have been established, and have either faded away (the 1994 Group), or do not have anything approaching the same recognition or power as the RG (Million+, University Alliance, GuildHE). In effect, we have returned to a binary system: the RG and the rest.

Creating a cartel

One of the key problems with this is that the RG is self-selected. It does not comprise, objectively, the very best universities in the UK. There is no promotion or relegation. In an interesting article in the Oxford Review of Education, Vikki Boliver assessed whether the Russell Group institutions can be said to constitute a distinctive and elite group.

The answer, she concludes, is no. ‘Oxford and Cambridge emerge as an elite tier, whereas the remaining 22 Russell Group universities...are found to cluster together with over half (17 out of 30) of all the other Old universities, and thus cannot be said to constitute a distinctive elite group.’

How, then, have its members been selected? It is not on research excellence or income; as Boliver notes, there are outliers in both RG and non-RG members. Nor do two of the original founding criteria - large urban centres and medical schools - still seem to be governing principles.

Its unregulated membership and collective self-interest can make it appear like a cartel, or ‘an association of...suppliers with the purpose of...restricting competition’ (OED). Its website puts it  more delicately: ‘its aim is to help ensure that our universities have the optimum conditions in which to flourish.’ But the end goal is the same.

And why shouldn’t it? It’s not a charity. It’s not lobbying for all universities. It’s looking out for itself, and it’s been hugely successful in doing so. However, with this single tight focus it is in danger of damaging the sector as a whole. It is splintering and damaging it, weakening its collective voice which will, in the long term, be to its own detriment.

Lessening choice

Inevitably the dominance of the RG kitemark has affected the way that students choose universities. Parents and teachers encourage, and then expect, and then demand, that their children apply first to Russell Group universities. In an interesting piece in The Telegraph one student describes the pressure she was under when she got three A*s at A level.

‘In my case, I’d had my heart set on a refreshingly accessible journalism course for well over a year – however, sharing a home with someone at 'the fifth most prestigious university in the country' made it virtually impossible not to be drawn into the Russell Group race.’

She eventually chose Salford over Oxford, but had to fight the stigma. ‘To all those considering university in the coming months,’ she wrote, ‘I offer this titbit of advice:  where you choose to go, and what you choose to study is down to you.’ To do so requires a determination that many will not have.

For those who do get a place within the RG, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be well served: recent reports of more than half of the RG members failing to achieve a gold standard in the TEF, and of RG universities having a ‘serious diversity problem’ suggest that there are some underlying issues that have been overlooked in its rush to be elite.

A surprising silence

What is most surprising is how little questioning there appears to be about the Russell Group. Its existence is taken for granted, its ‘elite’ badge accepted at face value. Searching online, most criticism seems to be, at best, slightly quizzical queries about the Group’s actions.

It’s time to question more and accept less. Size and age don’t necessarily equate to a birthright, nor an exclusive claim to excellence. The longer we unquestioningly accept it, the more damaging it will be to both the future health of the sector - and to the future choices of our children.

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