The Russell Group: What’s the big deal?

Certain phrases are used to group together top global universities - Ivy League, Russell Group, Oxbridge. But does a university's membership in one of these informal clubs matter to your education? We take a critical look at the Russell Group.


Charlie Bowden

7/28/20237 min read

Image: A graphic showing the locations and names of every university in the UK's Russell Group

When applying to universities in the UK, the term “Russell Group university” gets thrown around a lot, often without much context. The most you might get out of someone is that the Russell Group is the UK equivalent to America’s Ivy League, but this isn’t strictly true.

So what is the Russell Group, and what sets their universities apart from the rest? What would attending a Russell Group university mean for your future?

What is the Russell Group?

While the Russell Group (RG) carries a certain mystique that suggests it’s an institution almost as old as the universities that make it up, in reality, it is less than 30 years old. It was set up in 1994 at the Hotel Russell, by a group of university vice-chancellors, ahead of a meeting of an advocacy group called Universities UK. It began with 17 members, including Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College London, and University College London, and has since expanded to 24. King’s College London is among its newer members.

Why was the Russell Group founded?

The Russell Group was established to represent the interests of its members to the government regarding higher education policy. It is a self-selecting group and there are no rules governing which universities are members and which are not. It purports to make up the UK’s best universities, but not everyone agrees with this sentiment. In 2012 the head of one higher education institution told The Guardian: “The Russell Group has successfully stage-managed the position that it is seen as comprising the best universities. Some are and some aren’t, but by and large this is nonsense. However, parents increasingly say they want their child to go to one.”

Image: The stunning castle-like brick facade of Royal Holloway University, England. Royal Holloway is not a member of the Russell Group.

What is special about the Russell Group?

The Russell Group contains some of the most research-intensive universities in the UK. Collectively their research output far exceeds that of the competition. As of 2017, Russell Group universities receive over ¾ of all research grants and contracts in the UK, amounting to £4.5 billion. The group makes up only a fraction of the UK’s higher education institutions. Yet compared to the national average, twice as much of the research at Russell Group universities is considered ‘world-leading’, according to the Research Excellence Framework. The Russell Group are also the UK’s leaders in postgraduate study, with 60% of all UK doctorates being awarded by their universities.

International students in the UK overwhelmingly favour Russell Group universities, thanks to the perception that they have greater recognition in foreign contexts.

Should I apply to a Russell Group University?

Even though the group itself is relatively new in the grand scheme of British higher education and its members are not explicitly better universities than non-members, the Russell Group does clearly comprise some of the UK’s leading universities in terms of research output and academic excellence. It is not surprising that so many students apply to their courses because, in the areas where it counts, Russell Group members often outperform other UK higher education institutions.

Image: An infographic showing how background influences university choice, and how university choice influences future income. The majority of people from Russell Group universities end up in the top 20% of earners in the UK by age 30. However, close to half of Russell Group attendees came from the most affluent families in the first place. Source: UK Government, via the LSE blog.

Russell Group employment stats

In terms of employment, on average Russell Group graduates get better jobs and earn more than graduates of non-Russell Group universities. Remember, however, that in general Russell Group universities are more selective than other higher education institutions. Therefore, the people who attend RG universities are more likely to have more successful careers–because on average (though by no means in all cases), they tend to be that bit brighter and more ambitious. As the above graphic shows, Russell Group universities are also more frequently attended by wealthier people in the UK. A wealthier demographic is more likely to be successful, regardless of intelligence or ambition, simply because they have more resources at their disposal to throw behind their careers. This includes professional networks, money to spend on additional training, and access to better tools and tuition to improve their chances. Hence, the idea that attending a Russell Group university always improves your career prospects is a bit misleading.

Russell Group vs Ivy League

Formally, the Ivy League is an American collegiate athletic conference. However, the term is used more generally to refer to its eight members, who are renowned for their selective admissions and academic excellence. Unlike the Russell Group, which has members spread across England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the Ivy League is concentrated in the US’ east coast . Its universities are found in just seven out of the country’s more than fifty states.

Is Ivy League better than Russell Group?

The Russell Group and the Ivy League are frequently compared but there aren’t many similarities between them. They are both groups of prestigious universities, but they are organised differently and were created with different aims. The Ivy League, officially founded in 1954, was born out of a tradition of intercollegiate athletics competitions among its members. The Ivy League colleges are some of the oldest in the United States, with seven of them being colonial, so it makes sense that they were among the first to engage in intercollegiate sport. Unlike the Russell Group, the Ivy League was not set up to be a representative body in higher education.

Image: A stressed student writes a personal statement while the Ivy League college crests swirl around her with questions. Source: IHS.

Is the Russell Group bigger than the Ivy League?

The Russell Group is three times larger in terms of membership than the Ivy League. However, the exclusivity of the formal Ivy League has led some prestigious US universities to become associated with that name despite not actually being members. This includes Stanford, Duke University, and MIT. These informal groupings are commonly known as Ivy Plus. UK universities that are not in the Russell Group do not typically associate themselves with it because they are usually a member of another higher education advocacy group.

Does the Russell Group matter?

In terms of prestige, there is no doubt that the Russell Group carries a lot of weight in higher education. Some students apply to universities based on their reputation, especially when it comes to Oxford and Cambridge. However, it is difficult to argue on objective grounds what would count as the ‘best’ UK university.

Despite offering an average of 350 undergraduate courses, it would be impossible for the Russell Group’s members to be the best universities in the UK for every possible course. This is particularly true for newer or more vocational qualifications that simply may not be offered by a university. 24 universities cannot provide the best degree experience for every student among them; otherwise, everyone would apply to them.

Image: An elite college facade is lit by the sun bouncing off orange autumn leaves. Source: Keystone Academic.

How should I choose which universities to apply to?

Each university only has so much capacity for each course they offer, so it makes sense that they can’t be the best at everything. When considering where to apply for a degree, you should focus much more on what each university can offer for your course. If you’re applying for Law, which faculty is the most nationally prestigious? If you’re applying for Physics, which has the most impressive labs? If you’re applying for Nursing, which has a campus hospital specialising in your area of interest?

You shouldn’t just apply to a university because it has the Russell Group name attached, especially since you only have five choices. Of course, if you feel after careful consideration that a Russell Group university is ideal for you, you should apply; there is a reason they are so renowned. However, you should take the time to consider other options outside of those 24 universities because they make up a very small percentage of the institutions available for you to study at. Most UK universities are considered ‘world-class’ in at least one area of research. You just need to find which ones are the best for your specific subject interest, whether they be Russell Group or not.

What we do

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