Earlier this week, the Complete University Guide released its 2019 standings for universities in the UK. This table dropped University of Kent down a full 19 places to 44th, behind perceived minnows such as Nottingham Trent, Lincoln, and Strathclyde. For us students this is of course concerning for a multitude of reasons, and for the University it is a serious knock to its reputation, including its perception as one of the ‘not quite Russell Group’ universities. This position has been one of the main draws towards the university of late, but what does it functionally even mean? What even is the Russell Group?
Essentially, the Russell Group is a collection of good universities who work together to maintain their quality. Formed in 1994, they share information on everything from staff quality to formal research in an effort to improve their standards and, ultimately, make more money. It was not formed in order to be a group of excellent universities; rather, it was a group of good universities who bonded together to help themselves.
As such, the perception among students that the Russell Group is the cream of the crop is odd. Most of the universities in the Russell Group are indeed excellent, but not all of them are. All of Queen’s Belfast, Queen Mary London, and the University of Liverpool do not even crack the top 35 universities in Complete University Guide’s rankings, in spite of being in the Russell Group. Meanwhile, St. Andrews, Loughborough and Lancaster are all outside of the Russell Group, and yet are top 10 universities according to the Complete University Guide. Russell Group universities do tend to be good, but it is not a particularly strong correlation.
So what real value does the Russell Group hold for potential students today? In truth, very little. The organisation, perhaps unsurprisingly, works far better for helping the universities in the group than it does students; since it wasn’t set up to benefit students at all. Cambridge and Oxford remain the undisputed gold standard for universities in the UK, but past that, whether a university is a Russell Group university or not, is mostly irrelevant. Students should not really care about it, and it should not be overly important to universities. Being in it, or perceived as ‘near it’ in the case of Kent, should be more about the benefits gained from the group than about what students might think about it.
However, students do care about it. Whether they should or not is beside the point: it matters because their peers think it matters, and therefore it does. The aura of the Russell Group makes precious little sense, but nonetheless it exists, and universities are forced to deal with this. As such, the University of Kent falling away from the list of top universities, and so away from that ‘not quite Russell Group’ bracket, perhaps matters more than the reasons for Kent dropping in the first place. Students will be less likely to go to Kent if the university falls away from this bracket, making the university overall worse, and this will create a cycle. Ultimately therefore, this is a worrying problem for the University, whether it ‘should’ be or not.