I have missed the boat by about a week, but as you are all now aware A-levels results have been released and with them the hopes of hundreds of thousands of students have either been fulfilled or shattered in the process. I could spend the next 900 words or so waffling about my results day, but you have probably heard enough about A-levels to last a life time. Instead, I am going to talk about the ‘cult of the Russell Group’ and the dilemma it posed when I chose my university.
You may ask, why are you talking about choosing your university when most of us are already at the point of having accepted an offer? Quite simply it is because of a remark made on news the other week which got me thinking. On Thursday night I was sat watching Sky News and listening to the constant stream of ‘news’ about A-Level results. As with every year, the same stories of ‘rises/ falls in A/A* grades’, ‘Students with X amount of A*s rejected from Oxbridge’ and ‘fall/rise in university applications’ played on the same maddening loop every 15 minutes. Amongst this yearly reconstituted dribble was an interesting comment about the pressure upon students to do well in their exams and attend Russell Group universities rather than less prestigious institutions. Feeling personally insulted, I got up and proceeded to shout at the T.V. for 5 minutes in defence of my degree at Leicester, like the armchair ranter I will probably end up by the time I hit 50.
Thinking it over a bit, I came to realise why the comment annoyed me so much. When filling out my UCAS application, I applied to two Russell Group (Newcastle and Southampton) and two non-Russell Group universities (Leicester and UEA). I got offers from all four and was then faced with the dilemma of choosing which one to make my first choice. All had offered me AAB, so my choice had become one of personal preference. I initially gravitated to the prestige of Russell Group universities and even when Leicester increasingly became my favourite, I still felt reluctant to give up a potential place at a Russell Group University in order to go to a ‘less prestigious’ institution.
In many ways, you can perhaps but this down to my own misguidedsnobbery. At 18 I thought it would sound better in the awkward ‘what do you study’ and ‘which university do you go to’ conversations you seem to have with everyone in the real world. In a wider sense, I perhaps also felt that my life prospects would somehow be impaired by not going to a Red Brick university as my little brother is this year (Sheffield for those who are interested). Thinking it all over now I realise that not only was I an image obsessed idiot when I was 18, but that many have granted the Russell Group a cultish status that defies reality.
Granted, it is a particularly tough time for would-be graduates and anything you can do to make yourself stand out for the crowd is now a necessity rather than an optional extra (it is shocking how many times you will have this drilled into your head after freshers week). Going to a good university will certainly help you out. I will also not deny that Russell Group universities are some of the best in the country (11 out of the Guardians top 20 Universities are in the Russell Group). A problem arises, however, by using the Russell Group as a ubiquitous term for ‘most desirable institutions’ as in the news report. By doing so applicants are misled to thinking they are the only places worth going and perhaps overlook places better suited to them as individuals.
The reason I choose Leicester rather than a ‘prestigous Russell Group University’ was that I liked the way the university felt. I remember walking around on the open day and feeling at home. Equally some people will walk around Russell Group universities and will feel exactly the same as I did. University choice is as much a matter of personal preference as it is statistics or league tables and really it all boils down to the individual and how you feel about the collections of building you will potentially spend you next three or more years at. The above probably seems obvious to most of you on the other side of accepting you place at university, but I remember how ridiculously conflicted I remember being when making my choice some 3 years ago all for the sake of a name.
While it seems like I am unloading a lot of hate upon Russell Group universities, I am just suggesting that students should not be charmed by the idea that the cult of the Russell Group and see it as their only route to success, when other institutions are equally good if not better options. This is not an attack of the Russell Group itself who are institutions that deserve the praise they receive, but rather upon the exaggerated mystique that many garner the group with. In this way the ‘cult of the Russell Group’ says more about the pretensions of its followers than the institutions themselves. As important as name and lineage are, they should not engulf the fundamental importance of attending the university that best suits you rather than offer a simple dichotomy of Russell Group and everything else. . If anyone has any thoughts about what I have called the ‘cult of the Russell Group ‘, feel free to comment in the selection below. Similarly I liked to know why you all choose Leicester University rather than somewhere else. I have said, I was won over by how at home I felt, but how about you?