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For teachers

Russell Group or non-Russell Group university?

Do your students think there's only one type of university worth considering? Help them broaden their horizons and look a little deeper into what's out there.

The Russell Group is made up of 24 world-class universities which receive the majority of the research funding in the UK. These institutions share a strong reputation for teaching and learning and attract staff and students from around the world. They are popular with graduate recruiters and highly rated by many major UK firms.

Although the Russell Group has become synonymous with elite, selective universities, it is a self-selected group and was never formed to measure university excellence.

Pros and cons of Russell Group universities

  • If students are looking for universities with a strong reputation, many of the Russell Group are counted amongst the best in the world, but that isn't the full story.
  • As large institutions, they sometimes struggle to match the 'customer satisfaction' offered by some of the smaller universities, although it could be argued that students come to Russell Group universities with particularly high expectations.
  • Some institutions in the group have struggled to meet targets around widening access, according to a May 2016 report from the Office For Fair Access (OFFA).
  • Alongside their high status, they tend to be well funded, which can mean generous bursaries and scholarships or better facilities.
  • On the other hand, non-Russell Group universities might place more emphasis on work experience and building industry contacts - ever-important aspects of employability post-graduation.


All Russell group universities are the same

The Russell Group isn't a homogenous group of matching institutions. The different universities vary widely, from 1960s campus universities to ancient collegiate institutions.

Each has subjects and areas of research that they specialise in and their own unique selling points. When researching courses, encourage students to look both at the university as a whole as well as at a subject / faculty level, considering the unique selling points each has to offer.

They are the best universities in the country

It's true that the group's members tend to be found near the top of the league tables, but it's risky to assume that Russell Group unis are always the best option for every subject.

Help students look at the wider picture with these facts:
  • The Times University of the Year 2016 (University of Surrey) is not from the Russell Group.
  • Three of the top five universities in the Guardian university league tables 2017 are non-Russell Group.
  • Only a few of the top-ranked institutions in the National Student Survey come from within the group.
  • In addition, many of the best universities for creative courses, healthcare or journalism, for example, can be found elsewhere.
  • A great example of a successful non-Russell Group university is former polytechnic Coventry University. It appears at number 15 in the Guardian university league tables for 2017, beating 15 of the 24 Russell Group institutions.

Employers are only interested in graduates from the Russell Group

Companies recruiting graduates typically focus their efforts on institutions where they have recruited successfully in the past. The Russell Group universities are popular with many of the big graduate recruiters, but the training schemes that these companies offer are only one way of getting into work. Around 20,000 grads started work with a Times Top 100 Graduate Recruiters in 2015, yet a further 300,000 students graduated that same year: most find work in other ways.
It is worth students investigating how their chosen universities link with small or medium-sized employers, too. Certain universities offer placement years as standard, leading to improved graduate opportunities with a wide range of employers. Some non-Russell Group universities are known for their particularly strong links with industry.

What should students consider when applying to Russell Group universities?

Primarily, they'll need to consider their subjects, qualifications and grades. Generally, academic qualifications at grades ABB and above are in demand, but there are exceptions to this and increasing numbers of students are now being accepted on to courses with three Bs.
UCL asks for all applicants to hold a GCSE grade C or above in a foreign language. Those that don't will be asked to take a short course to develop language proficiency.
Look out for the facilitating subjects that appear most often in the entry requirements - the Russell Group's own guide on choosing A-level subjects wisely goes into more detail on this.  
Be aware that Russell Group institutions offer a range of schemes to encourage widening participation, including outreach schemes with local schools (sometimes resulting in lower offers) or extended degrees. Search ‘widening participation’ on the websites of Russell Group universities to find out what's on offer and who can apply.

Considering all options

For many students, a Russell Group institution will be the right option, but assuming that it is the only option worth considering can be limiting.
The UK university landscape is diverse, ranging from tiny, specialist colleges to sprawling city campuses; from universities known for academic excellence to those known for impressive employer links. There should be something for everyone, but it is a question of finding the right fit.
Encourage your students to search widely and to ask themselves:
  • Why am I going to university?
  • What do I want to get out of the experience?
  • What are the most important factors for me?
 Answers to these questions, along with support from teachers, advisers and parents should help students to work out what is right for them.