Are Russell Group universities worth it?

24 October 2016 | University Advice | Thomas Peacock

Their opening argument is very impressive. In short, we the 24 elite research-intensive, world-class universities are all unique institutions that share three distinguishing characteristics;

  • A commitment to maintaining the very best research
  • An outstanding teaching and learning experience
  • Unrivalled links with business and the public sector

It is difficult to argue against the overall message. That being the case, why on Earth are not the other 100 plus universities doing the same.

Being at the forefront of knowledge is too often not synonymous with effective teaching and learning. Being a good teacher and being at the knowledge frontier may have correlation but lack causality. Having close ties with industry is a win for graduating students who will be well positioned to gain employment, a win for universities in the form of problems to solve and funding and, organisations have a relatively cost effective pool of problem solvers. This arrangement is so obviously the way to go that I would be surprised if the non-Russell universities have not figured it out. Perhaps they have!

Conveniently The Complete University Guide has collected a wealth of useful information from The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) which will be used to tackle this question. Specifically, the 2016/7 data for university entry requirement, student satisfaction, research quality and graduate prospects.

Trawling through this information it is confirmed that the 24 Russell universities have, on average, a higher barrier to entry than the 24 highest ranked non-Russell universities (an average point score of 463 compared with 398 respectively). In short, students need better grades at A level or with other equivalent qualifications. However, on the matter of offering students outstanding teaching and learning experience, which should be reflected in student satisfaction measures, the data strongly suggest very little difference between Russell and non-Russell universities. There is however a suggestion that for non-Russell universities the data is significantly less dispersed, possibly reflecting less variation in student satisfaction responses (coefficient of variation of 9.24 and 2.28 respectively). At a stretch, we could say that students at non-Russell universities are consistently more satisfied.

Parameters used to rate universities (average values):

  24 Russell Group universities 24 highest ranked non-Russell Group universities % difference
Entry Requirement  463  398 14.0
Student Satisfaction  4.16  4.13  0.7
Research Quality  3.2  3.01  5.2
Graduate Prospects  80.6  76.6  4.9

Source: Analysis using data from The Complete University Guide (2016/7)

It is a surprise to see only a 4.9% difference for graduate prospects between the two group of universities. Do we believe that prospects for graduates from the UK top four ranked universities is only marginally better than those non-Russell universities that are routinely ranked in the region of 50 plus? In all this analysis we must remain mind-full that we are applying averages and other statistical measures in an attempt to determine whether Russell Group universities are worth their weight in gold. Consider this, 15 of the 24 Russell universities (62%) are ranked in the top 21 UK universities, compared with only 7 (29%) for the 24 non-Russell universities. There must be some substance to the assumption that Russell universities are worth it.

Coefficient of Variation (Standard Deviation as % of Mean)              

  24 Russell Group universities 24 highest ranked non-Russell Group universities
Entry Requirements 13 13
Student Satisfaction 9.24 2.28
Research Quality 3.04 4.13
Graduate Prospects 5.4 9.1

Source: Analysis using data from The Complete University Guide (2016/17)

A main boast of the Russell Group is the quality of their research, a quality that purports to set them apart from other universities. The data strongly challenges this. The difference in scores for research quality between the two groups differs by a mere 5.2%. Although this is in favour of the Russell Group by itself this is by no means conclusive.

So, are Russell Group universities worth it? A purely statistical analysis is by no means strongly conclusive. However, given that these 24 universities comfortably represent the top 38 of the 154 recognised UK universities (25%), there is some merit to conclude that they have worth.

Simone Pantlitz
Alexander Partners
24 October 2016

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