Tuesday, 20 March 2012

What will happen to the Russell Group?

The Russell Group of universities is soon to have 24 members. A number of universities joined a few years ago (Queen’s University Belfast, Warwick, LSE, etc?), and a week ago it was announced that four further universities (Durham, Exeter, Queen Mary, York) will join the Russell Group. This has raised speculations about the future of this group (also its relation to the 1994 Group with its falling number of members, down to 15): see eg, in the Times Higher here.
Since there tends to be some confusion about the precise nature of the Russell Group (RG), to start with, it is important to say what the RG is not - and what it is:
  • Sometimes is called the group of ‘leading UK universities’. Most RG members rank highly in the RAE/REF and university rankings. Yet, membership is not strictly a result of these rankings (contrast, the Sutton 13). In particular, the RG only includes at least medium sized universities, thus not highly ranked small universities or specialised institutions (eg, St Andrews, IOE, LBS). Also, no member of the RG has been relegated, though since its beginnings in 1994 some have dropped in the rankings or not performed well in the RAEs.
  • It is not a group of universities like the US Ivy League which share a common history as the old elite universities of the country. The members of the RG tend to be the older universities of the UK; yet, not all of them are included (eg Aberdeen, St Andrews), and some members (eg Warwick, York) were only established after WW II.
  • Is it not a close research collaboration of universities, eg, like the N8 Research partnership (here). Rather, the RG members may see the other members of the group as their main competitors.
  • Though the RG represents the best-known universities of the UK, it is not a group representing university interests as a whole – this would be Universities UK (here).
  • Rather, it is a special lobby representing the group of this particular type of universities, ie medium or large universities with a focus on high-quality teaching and research (vs the smaller universities/institutes, and less research-focussed universities). Thus, it may be seen as akin to a group representing a specialised industry or profession (plumbers, accountants etc); yet, it should be said that the elite perception (see above) is of course a convenient tool to get attention in the media.
Now, eventually, what will happen in the future?
  • A merger with the 94 group? unlikely, some of the 94 group members are highly ranked, but others rank lower than the average RG members. Thus, there may be fear that it would dilute the profile of the RG.
  • Accept just a few more members of the 94 group? possibly, the RG may decide to accept the smaller top institutions, but I don’t think it may want to grow well beyond 25 members in order to retain the perception of a small elite.
  • Decide to evict some of the lower ranked RG members? the very top universities may want to do it, but I would assume that a majority of RG members prefers the certainty of a permanent membership.
  • The creation of a new group of the, say, top 5 universities? possible, but, perhaps not likely. Since the top 5 perceive themselves as top world universities, they may be keener on (further) developing international groups with the Harvards of this word.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

If the Olympics were like the REF, then …

  • they would only take place every 6 to 8 eight years (btw: for REF see here),
  • the performance of the athletes would not be assessed on the basis of objective measurement, but a panel of experts would make a subjective assessment (i.e. ‘figure skating model’ for all sports),
  • yet, at the level of the nations objective criteria would be used, e.g. on the number of aspiring athletes or sponsors, in order to determine a rank,
  • in addition, it would matter whether your success in the games had an actual impact, e.g., it may depend on whether the media are interested in your discipline, and
  • the assessment of individual participants would not be disclosed but only the final medal table – and that’ll be done a year after the games.
It may also be worth contemplating if the REF were like the Olympics, but I’ll leave that for another day…