Russell Group universities a 'hollow brand' says ex-Ucas chief

Russell Group of universities is a ‘self-selecting hollow brand’ says ex-Ucas chief as thousands of students battle for university places after getting their A-level results

  • Ex-Ucas chief Mary Curnock Cook: ‘Only 4 or 5 outstanding Russell Group unis’
  • She said most of them aren’t top 50 and some score poor on teaching quality
  • They have too many white middle-class and privately educated students she said
  • Russell Group chief Dr Tim Bradshaw called the comments an ‘unfair attack’

Russell Group universities have been labelled as a ‘hollow brand’ and ‘self-selecting and self-promoting’ by a former Ucas chief executive.

The former head of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) Mary Curnock Cook, who served in the role for more than seven years, said the 24 universities’ reputation for being ‘elite’ was undeserved.

Future students are now battling for places after getting their A-level results but as of last night, less than 600 clearing places were available at Russell Group universities and less than 24,000 courses were available in total – the lowest in four years.

Ex-Ucas chief Mary Mary Curnock Cook OBE (pictured), has criticised the Russell Group of universities for being a ‘self-selecting’ and being a ‘hollow brand’

Pictured: Scenes of joy at Newcastle High School For Girls as pupils receive their A Level results after getting through a COVID-19 hit school year

Who are the Russell Group of universities? 

The University of Cambridge (pictured) is one of the most prestigious in the world

The Russell Group is made up of 24 ‘leading’ UK universities.

  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Bristol
  • University of Cambridge
  • Cardiff University
  • Durham University
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Exeter
  • University of Glasgow
  • Imperial College London
  • King’s College London
  • University of Leeds
  • University of Liverpool
  • London School of Economics and Political Science
  • University of Manchester
  • Newcastle University
  • University of Nottingham
  • University of Oxford
  • Queen Mary University of London
  • Queen’s University Belfast
  • University of Sheffield
  • University of Southampton
  • University College London
  • University of Warwick
  • University of York

Source: The Russell Group

The Russell Group only contains ‘perhaps four or five genuinely outstanding universities’ including Oxford and Cambridge, Ms Curnock Cook told the Times.

She said that some of the rest of the Russell Group is comprised of ‘modest performers’ as they would find it difficult to be reach the top 50 universities in the league tables, by student progress.

‘A few score poorly on teaching quality too, she added’.

She said that while Russell Group universities prize intensive research, she has seen no research suggesting this matches up to student preferences.

Ms Curnock Cook argued that Russel Groups have become a ‘hugely successful if hollow “brand”‘ which ‘distorts’ the higher education market, student choice and political thinking.

Russell Groups have a disproportionate number of white middle-class undergraduates and privately educated students, while just paying ‘lip service’ to diversity, she said.

Several ‘outstanding’ universities are also not included in the Russell Group and she said some should be kicked out and the criteria changed so that others can join.

She also accused the government of being selective against former polytechnics in culling degrees of a low standard. 

Ms Curnock Cook now sits as a non-executive director at the Student Loans Company, and as a trustee of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

However, chief executive of the Russell Group Dr Tim Bradshaw told the Times that the criticisms were an ‘unfair attack’.

He said that over half of the members are among the top 100 universities in the world and that 91% of their research is ‘world leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’.

Dr Bradshaw added that pupils from more disadvantaged areas are going to Russell Group universities each each year – and that the institutions have low dropout rates.

Of all students with a new place at Oxford University (pictured) this year, a high of nearly one quarter are from a deprived background

Of all students with a new place at Oxford University this year, a high of nearly one quarter are from a deprived background.

However the number of students coming from state schools has stalled.

Almost one in four students accepted by Oxford for this autumn is from a deprived background, the university said yesterday.

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