4 benefits of studying at the Russell Group universities.

September 3, 2020

Britain is one of the largest net providers of tertiary education of any country in the world. This means that there are thousands of higher education and college options to choose from. As a result, there are many umbrella organisations that represent the interests of universities that share specific characteristics.

Perhaps the most notable of these collectives is the Russell Group. This organisation includes 24 world-leading institutions, from Oxford and Cambridge to Sheffield and Leeds by way of Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Queen’s University Belfast. There are several benefits of studying at the Russell Group universities, along with a few disadvantages.

So, what are the prevailing key characteristics of Russell Group universities, and why should you think about applying to one of this collective’s institutions? Here’s a quick breakdown of the organisation’s history and mission statement, to help answer any initial questions you might have. If you want a more in-depth analysis of specific Russell Group universities, head to the Definitive University Guides section of our website.

The History of the Russell Group

In 1994, representatives from 17 top-class British universities got together to set up the Russell Group: the organisation’s prevailing aim is to use “world-class research and education (facilities) (…) to create a dynamic economy, stronger communities, and a better future for the UK.”

After meeting up for several informal chats at Hotel Russell in London, these research-intensive universities pledged to foster collaboration between the best and brightest academics in the UK. The hope was that the sharing of ideas and methods which had worked well would benefit the UK’s research output significantly.

There is no question that the Russell Group has done an excellent job in this respect, with only Israel producing a higher return on research investment. However, when you’re applying for an undergraduate degree, you will likely focus more on the university’s quality of teaching than on its quality of research (the latter factor is much more important for prospective postgraduates).

Benefits of Studying at the Russell Group Universities as an Undergraduate

Although you might not prioritise the research aspect of a university’s credentials when you’re a prospective undergraduate, there are still a number of highly persuasive reasons why you should consider applying to a Russell Group school, including:

Generally speaking, Russell Group universities have world-leading reputations when it comes to several crucial factors, such as student satisfaction rates and consistently excellent research output.

Because of this internationally recognised brand, Russell Group institutions tend to attract a wide range of students, teaching fellows, lecturers, and tenured professors alike from across the world. In fact, a 2017 report issued by the Russell Group found that 34% of all students across the organisation’s universities were from international countries: that’s an exceptional representation of the pull that the Russell Group brand has when it comes to attracting the brightest young people from across the globe.  

Another major benefit of attending a Russell Group university is the fact that you can be sure that you’re heading to a well-funded institution. That’s because the more research-intensive the institution is, the more money it will likely receive from lucrative research grants.

In fact, Russell Group organisations have a proven track record of collaborating with various businesses and other global research-intensive institutions in projects that amount to more than £1 billion annually. This work makes the RG brand one of the most valuable assets in the UK education sector, encouraging the government to invest more of their public research money into these universities.

As a result, it’s likely that you’ll benefit directly from excellent campus facilities and a wide variety of research lab opportunities or internships when you head to a Russell Group university.

Graduating with a top-quality degree from a Russell Group university can set you up for life. In June 2018, the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculated that graduates from RG colleges will, on average, go on to earn 10 to 13% more than non-RG contemporaries across the UK for the 5 years following graduation.

This data goes to show that high-paying employees really value the Russell Group brand when they’re looking through the job applications of recent university graduates. Also, the top recruiters in the finance, business, education, and NGO sectors will tend to concentrate most of their energy on hosting network events or visiting job fairs at Russell Group and other prestigious UK universities when looking for new graduate recruits.

Another of the benefits of studying at the Russell Group universities is the fact that most of these places boast high student satisfaction rates. There are a number of potential reasons for this. Firstly, the vast majority of RG institutions are located in the centre of a bustling, vibrant city or town, so students have no shortage of things to do in their spare time, whether it’s heading to a stand-up comedy gig, cheering on the local football team under the Friday-night lights, or taking over the dancefloor for your local Club Tropicana’s Thirsty Tuesdays.

Secondly, as we’ve already mentioned, Russell Group universities tend to attract a lot of international students from across the globe: that leads to a diverse and exciting student experience for everyone involved, with an amalgamation of cultures and personal contexts.

Finally, if you’re attending an RG institution, you probably value studying on a course that’s academically and intellectually challenging: you’ll definitely find this with any top course at a Russell Group university.  

Shortcomings of Russell Group Universities

Although there are many benefits of studying at Russell Group universities, there are also a few disadvantages with these colleges that you should be aware of when you’re picking your top choices for your UCAS form.

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) was introduced by the UK government in 2017 and uses a variety of core data sets to measure the quality of teaching at universities across the country. These metrics include the level of academic support students receive, the level of graduate success for students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and the course retention rates.

Perhaps surprisingly, only 10 of the 24 Russell Group universities received the top-level Gold certification for teaching excellence in the 2019 Times Higher Education ranking: these institutions included Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Imperial College, Newcastle, and Leeds. To put that into perspective, in 2019 only 10 of the 55 Gold-certified universities in the UK were in the Russell Group. In other words, prestige and brand don’t automatically equal teaching excellence, nor do they ensure that all students from all backgrounds will have equal economic and work opportunities after graduation.

It’s also well worth noting that a disproportionate amount of public funding and research grant money goes into supporting science-based subjects at institutions of higher education (rather than humanities-based subjects). This is a truth that applies to most UK universities, but it’s something to consider if you’ve got your heart set on studying Nordic languages, History of Art, or English Literature at a Russell Group college.

Another major factor to consider when it comes to choosing between RG and non-RG options for your UCAS picks is that the Russell Group is a pretty broad church when it comes to quality of research, teaching, facilities, and general reputation. For example, while Oxford and Cambridge are highly distinguished, world-leading organisations with internationally-recognised brands, institutions like the University of Southampton, the University of Nottingham, and the University of Birmingham are arguably less prestigious than non-RG colleges like those at St Andrews and Lancaster.

Also, the quality of teaching can vary dramatically between degrees and mid-table RG universities, depending upon which subject you want to study. For example, if you’re looking to get into a high-quality Sports Science course, you’ll want to apply to colleges like Anglia Ruskin, Loughborough, or Oxford Brookes. Likewise, if you want to apply for a more practical, hands-on degree like Pharmacology or Hospitality, you should aim to get into Ulster, De Montfort, or Glasgow Caledonian.

All this is to say that you shouldn’t just consider the name of the university when it comes to finding the perfect course for your needs and passions: think about the degree itself and whether you think you’d fit in with the culture and feel of the university or subject department in question.

Final Thoughts

It’s important not to completely avoid any particular university because it’s been poorly ranked by one metric. When it comes to prospective students and the university application process, one of the biggest issues is that candidates think of higher education league tables as some kind of universal, untouchable standard with data and metrics that can never be questioned.

In reality, this isn’t the case, and many people have ended up having poor university experiences because they listened to selective data sets rather than actually visiting the universities, thoroughly researching the courses, and having conversations with current students, teachers, and alumni.

Like so much in life, you get what you give when it comes to the university admissions process. For that reason, make sure that you’re not coming from a place of preconceptions and bias when looking at UK college options.

Generally speaking, Russell Group universities are excellent institutions with a distinguished brand and a high average rate of student satisfaction. However, there are plenty of non-Russell Group options that may suit you, and your needs, better.

As always, if you are struggling with any component of the application process, then do not hesitate to book a free consultation with one of our experts in the A&J Education team.

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