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Posted Oct. 12, 2012

BLING BLING! Does the Russell Group shine as gold?

Isn’t it irritating to get into a club and see people flaunting their BLING BLING watches, golden chains, and bracelets?

BLING BLING on the dance floor!

BLING BLING at the bar!

BLING BLING in the DJ’s face!


And what’s even worse is that sometimes being “BLING BLING” actually works when it comes to attracting the opposite sex or getting free drinks...

But wait! If you thought that bling bling impresses only teenagers who aren’t willing to look beneath the surface of a person or a bunch of clubbers whose senses have been desensitized by a few too many glasses of alcohol? Think again! Sometimes bling bling works even for those who are fully capable of rational thinking. To cut a long story short, clubs aren’t the only places where you will encounter people flaunting their glitter, it’s actually present in the world of universities as well.

How many times have people proudly saying: “I’m studying at an Ivy League university.”? Doesn’t that sound rather bling bling to you? Well in the UK university system the Russell Group springs to mind. After all, it is not uncommon to see postgraduate students in the UK writing on their CVs that they studied at a Russell Group university or verbally announcing it to their friends or employers.

I am not claiming that the Russell Group universities don’t deserve their reputation or are not of high quality. However, I do think that many students sometimes use the Russell Group brand in a bling bling fashion when bragging about their academic achievements. My aim in this blog is not to question the value of specific Russell Group universities – instead I want to go under the surface and examine whether the brand itself really is a big deal, or if it’s simply exploited by the students who use it to impress their peers, family, or employers.

The Russell Group – What is it all about?

Although many people think of the Russell Group as an association that comprises all the best universities in the UK, such a statement should be recognised as popular opinion and not a fact. The Russell Group is an association of public universities whose focus is high quality research. However, when it comes to university quality, research strength is not the only criteria that should be considered. Employment rates, student satisfaction and lecturing quality are also all very important factors that help determine how good a university is.

Are the Russell Group universities really that “untouchable” in research?

It is true that the Russell Group universities on average excel in research and account for two thirds of university grants awarded in the UK. But this doesn’t mean that a university is excellent in all areas of research just because it’s branded as being part of the Russell Group, and it certainly doesn’t mean that these universities are superior to the rest. Indeed, there are many other universities in the UK that are equally good research-wise. For example, the universities of St. Andrews and Bath are among the best for research in the UK, and they are not members of the Russell Group.

A long time ago, I had a conversation with a friend who was accepted at one Russell and one Non-Russell university for a postgraduate course, and he was considering which one to choose. Paradoxically, the Non-Russell Group university had a stronger department in his field of research, but he was considering accepting the offer by the other university solely because of the Russell Group brand. Luckily, his common sense prevailed, and although today he doesn’t have the Russell Group BLING BLING chain around his neck, he is still an excellent researcher!

The point is, rather than checking which universities are branded as Russell or Non-Russell when choosing your postgraduate research course, it is better to check how strong a university is in your field of research – this will help you choose the best university for you.

Job Prospects

Nowadays, as the grounds of the global economy are shaking, the most important factor for many students when choosing a postgraduate course is their employment prospects after graduation. It is true that the Russell Group universities on average have high employment rates. However, there are also many universities which aren’t in the Russell Group nor even very research oriented that still have equally high employment rates. For example, Robert Gordon University, Edinburgh Napier University, and the University of Surrey are amongst the top in the UK in terms of employment rates.

Many modern universities which are neither highly ranked nor have the Russell Group etiquette have high employment rates because they are closely connected to the industry and work hard to make their students more employable. These universities are not surrounded by a bling bling aura so they know that they have to be highly efficient if they want to attract new students. If we look at the things from this perspective, attending a non-branded university could be a positive factor.

And what about of you want to work in a more cutting-edge field – as interior design, digital publishing, or movie production for example? Well in this case you’ll probably be forced to choose a Non-Russell university because the majority of traditional research universities do not have such courses on offer.

All in all, hoping that having any Russell Group University on your CV will earn you at least an interview no matter where you apply for a job is not very realistic. Employers usually know which specific universities produce high quality students in their field, and it is much more likely that they’ll focus on other more relevant aspects of your CV rather than checking whether your university is Russell or Non-Russell.

The Russell Group = the Ivy League?

Not so long ago, I read an internet discussion where someone was trying to compare the Russell Group to the Ivy League. Both of these associations are perceived as the pinnacles of university greatness in their home countries, however, I do think that such a comparison is a bit far-fetched. Why? Well, the Ivy League consists of only eight universities, and roughly a half of them are amongst the top ten worldwide. On the other hand the Russell Group consists of 24 universities, so obviously half of them cannot be amongst the top ten in the world even though they are all exceptionally good! The Russell Group universities are on the same level as the Ivy League universities, but the Russell Group is not as “selective” when it comes to accepting new members, which is probably one of the reasons why the Russell Group as a brand doesn’t sound as bling bling as the Ivy League. And don’t get me wrong! Here I am referring to the Russell Group as a brand name and not to its specific universities which may be equally or even more renowned than the Ivy League ones!

International Appeal

Speaking of the Ivy League, the question arises how internationally appealing is the Russell Group brand? Whereas many of the Russell Group universities are internationally well known, they haven’t built their reputation on being the Russell Group universities. Similarly, no UK University is internationally well-known just because it’s a member of the Russell Group and for no other reason. Therefore, for those students who want to make sure that studying in the UK will open them the door to work anywhere around the world, it is wiser to choose a university based on its own international reputation rather than checking whether it belongs to the Russell Group or not.

The Conclusion – What really counts?

A message to anyone who is treating postgraduate studies as the dance floor for showing off: the Russell Group should not be mistaken for a large glittering golden chain! Take it for what it is – an association of strong research-based universities and not an elite group of the best universities. Attending a Russell University will probably help those students who are interested in research and want to remain in academia, but there are many other aspects of university quality which are not related solely to research strength. Moreover, there are many other universities outside the Russell Group which are equally strong research-wise, and don’t forget that the overall research quality of a university means nothing if its specific departments don’t perform high quality research.

Let’s face it – undergraduate students choose their university in a more “black and white” manner, considering only reputation and rankings and in the process neglecting many other aspects. However, for a postgraduate student who has already graduated from a good university it is important to make a more comprehensive assessment and take into account everything from overall university reputation to the strengths of the relevant department and supervisor.

The Russell Group glitter will not fix a weak CV, so let’s leave the bling bling to the music world and show that we as students are nowhere near that shallow!


1 comment

Myles Oct. 21, 2016, 5:21 a.m.

Awesome blog post.Really looking forward to read more. Much obliged.

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