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#WeAreHE - Fragmentation Will Damage UK Universities

UK higher education needs a unified front

October 19, 2017
 
 

Since 2015, I've worked with 7 Russell Group Universities as part of my higher education consultancy. And, I've visited the campuses of 4 other RG institutions. That leaves me with 13 additional universities to visit (or work with) that are part of the UK's most well-known HE group.

Similar to the Ivy League in the US, the Russell Group exerts tremendous influence over the higher education sector in the United Kingdom. The 24 member institutions offer tremendous opportunities for students and provide the UK with exceptional academic experiences. The most well-known of these universities would of course be Oxford and Cambridge. They're so prestigious that they even have their own portmanteau – Oxbridge.

In addition to Oxbridge, the entire set of Russell Group institutions boast an impressive array of credentials/stats:

  • They produce more than two-thirds of the world-leading research produced in UK universities and support more than 300,000 jobs across the country.
  • Their economic output is more than £32 billion every year.
  • In 2015-16, 417,000 undergraduates and 192,500 postgraduates were studying at a Russell Group university.

To put it bluntly, the Russell Group has an unbelievable amount of influence within the UK. For example, the philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) degree at Oxford University is like an automatic golden ticket to social/career success:

More than any other course at any other university, more than any revered or resented private school, and in a manner probably unmatched in any other democracy, Oxford PPE pervades British political life. From the right to the left, from the centre ground to the fringes, from analysts to protagonists, consensus-seekers to revolutionary activists, environmentalists to ultra-capitalists, statists to libertarians, elitists to populists, bureaucrats to spin doctors, bullies to charmers, successive networks of PPEists have been at work at all levels of British politics – sometimes prominently, sometimes more quietly – since the degree was established 97 years ago.

A recent article in The Guardian titled "Academic civil war as elite universities lobby for others to drop their fees" references the clash of the RG titans with the UK's post-1992 (also known as "modern") universities. The post-1992 universities are higher education institutions (many of which I've also done quite a bit of consulting work with) that were formerly designated as polytechnics.

Because the university sector in the UK mirrors the social class-based structure of the country, the "former polytechnics," whilst providing an excellent academic/student experience, are still seen by many as being farther down the academic rung than the elite Russell Group universities.

This tension between universities is inherently problematic for a country that is in the midst of the worst economic decision it has ever made (see Brexit and David Cameron for more information). UK universities should be united in their shared camaraderie and mission to educate, inform, research, and lead. We need experts and scholars to dig us out of this mess and guide the nation towards a more progressive path.

Instead, you get an "anonymous" Russell Group university vice chancellor (the equivalent to a president or chancellor at a US university) saying that the post-1992 universities are sitting on financial surpluses compared to other elite UK universities. The argument being that since every student in the UK pays the same tuition and that places like Oxford spend significantly more per student than a modern university. It's a fallacy of course as the funding/cost structures of universities aren't an easy apples-to-apples comparison.

 

However, given the absolute power, influence, and clout (yes, it needs to be said repeatedly) of the Russell Group, it's vital that post-1992 institutions not be penalized for their perceived lack of prestige. Yes, it costs less to educate a student at a former poly, but it's also about leveling the playing field. The Oxbridges of the UK tend to have wealthier alumni, increased levels of funding for research, and huge international brand recognition. It's easier for Russell Group universities (and their students) to be successful.

If the UK higher education sector truly cares about widening participation, it needs to stop clinging to an elitist hierarchy. You can have stellar institutions without a ladder of inequality.

 

A so-called civil war between UK universities will hurt students. The fact that domestic university students in the UK pay about the same amount of money regardless of where they're studying is a good thing for the UK's higher education sector. If the current government cuts tuition fees for modern universities (and not for Russell Group universities) the state of higher education in the UK will take a massive step backwards.

Class inequality is already an issue that's being exacerbated on a daily basis in the UK. Russell Group university graduates have a much easier time landing jobs than other UK university grads.

Hurting other universities by way of financial limitations in an attempt to protect an overly privileged prestigious position isn't the answer to what would happen if tuition fees were reduced.

It's time for UK universities to come together as a fully joined up sector. That's the future of UK higher education. It's time to be done with infighting and elitism. The future of the country is at stake.

 

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