Russell Group universities are not necessarily the best

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Considering Lancaster’s success in the league tables – currently standing at 137th globally and 11th nationally – it’s easy to forget that we’re a relatively young university. The major “redbrick” universities around, such as Manchester, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, and Sheffield, are commonly perceived to be some of the best universities in the UK because of their long histories and Russell Group status. The question, however, is whether this prestige actually translates into being a successful university. Of course, writing this for an edition of SCAN that is celebrating Lancaster University’s 50th anniversary, this article is clearly going to be biased in our favour. What is interesting, however, is that when you look into the arc of Lancaster’s success measured against those of the Russell Group universities, the facts certainly seem to weigh in Lancaster’s favour.

For those who are unaware, the 24 UK members of the Russell Group have greater access to funding for research, in turn leading to a perception that those are the “places to be” if you want to carry out meaningful study. Russell Group universities also tend to have higher entry requirements for potential undergraduates. Certainly when I was applying to university, the ones I felt I “should” have been applying to were all members of the Russell Group, and even more so because two mammoth universities – Manchester and Liverpool – lay pretty much on my doorstep. The sense of prestige that comes with being a Russell Group university is unrivalled, and even for those who are sketchy on information when it comes to thinking about what being a Russell Group university actually means, it still has some resonance in the minds of students and the general public alike.

When we examine the league tables, however, such prestige is misleading. Global rankings place Lancaster two places above Leeds and three places above Warwick, whilst the UK rankings see both Manchester and Leeds falling well short of Lancaster. The English Language and Linguistics department in particular has risen to great success in recent years, celebrating its 40th anniversary with a global ranking of 9th – astounding given our lack of Russell Group status. Some, such as University College London president Malcolm Grant, may argue that rankings and league tables do little to reflect the diversity of university departments or the reality of studying at a particular university, but it is hard to argue that Lancaster hasn’t done well given its “new-kid-on-the-block” status. In fact, according to the Complete University Guide for 2014, we’re the top university in the north west of England, and with Vice Chancellor Mark E. Smith’s aims to increase the number of students at Lancaster with the hope of continuing to attract the top students, our university’s future can be nothing but bright.

Our success, however, is about more than just bandying around rankings and the words “Russell Group” or “redbrick”. What makes Lancaster University unique in comparison to the Russell Group is, I think, its communality. Lancaster has around 12,000 students, whereas Manchester hosts around 40,000 and Leeds has around 30,000. Our campus is close-knit and we have the opportunity to form meaningful ties to each other and to lecturers instead of getting lost in the crowd elsewhere. Russell Group status, at the end of the day, means incredibly little in the grand scheme of things – certainly for students at least. Lancaster is doing fantastically well, and will continue to do fantastically well on its own. Whilst it would no doubt be beneficial to receive the Russell Group funding that other universities do, there is little evidence to suggest that such prestige actually reflects in the league tables.

What is far more important to students nowadays is the quality of life at university – termed by various surveys as “the student experience”. Yes, it’s still important to select a good, prestigious university, but if offered the chance of going to a Russell Group university or a university like Lancaster where student satisfaction is so high, I certainly wouldn’t think twice about choosing the latter. Over 50 years Lancaster has risen to great success very quickly, and hopefully the next 50 years will prove to be just as fruitful.

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