It is almost universally agreed that education is a tried and tested way of achieving social mobility; and the better and higher the education, the higher one is likely to climb on the social ladder.

Against this backdrop, I’d like to share some facts about higher education, specifically universities in UK as this information will equip you with the knowledge to help propel you forward.

  • There are 130 universities/university colleges in UK.
  • 24 of these universities are in the Russell Group; the majority of the others are post-1992 universities.
  • There are other ways in which universities are grouped such as red-brick, plate glass, modern universities amongst others.
  • The rest of this article focuses on the Russell Group Universities.
The Russell Group

The self-selected group started off with 17 universities in 1994. This has since grown to 24 universities.


What is the General Perception?

The general perception is that these are the best universities in the UK and there are a good number of reasons why this is the case:

  • Amongst other things, the objectives of the group include: leading the research efforts of the UK; and attracting the best staff and students and they have met these objectives over the years.
  • 8 of the top 10 universities in the Times Good University Guide for 2016 were in this group.
  • 6 in 10 of all the doctorate degrees in the UK are awarded by these universities.
  • Not only do these universities do well locally, about 68% of the world-leading research in 2014 was carried out in these universities.
  • In 2010, the Russell Group universities received about ⅔ of all university research grants and contract income.
  • In 2000, the Sutton Trust, an educational charity, listed 12 of these universities as part of the 13 highest-ranked, most prestigious and most selective universities aka Sutton Trust 13.
  • Even when the Sutton Trust updated their analysis in 2011 to reflect the 30 highest ranked universities (aka Sutton Trust 30) 22 of the 24 Russell Group universities were included.
Is Perception the Same as Reality?

Some argue that rather than this being an objective analysis, the perception of what these universities represent actually translates into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Basically, the thinking is that because they are self-selected and have a lot of clout and good marketing techniques, it is inevitable that they appear to be the best!

Personally, I think that the facts speak volumes:

  • Using the old UCAS tariff  each of the 12 Russell Group universities included in the Sutton Trust 13 had an average entry tariff in excess of 400 in 2014. Blog on the new UCAS tariff coming soon.
  • There is something about selecting the topmost students that influences the culture of the institution; the students are likely to feel challenged and therefore raise their game. For example 10 of the Russell Group universities feature in the top 20 universities with the lowest dropout rates.
  • Compared with the post 1992 universities, the Sutton Trust 13 Graduates (of which 12 are Russell Group universities) typically earn on average 17% more and are 12% more likely to be in professional employment 5 years after university.

Despite these facts, it is not a simple Russell Group versus the others divide.

Even within the Russell Group there are different tiers, as per table below, some of the Russell Group universities feature more than others in the top ranking tables. There is a school of thought that those in the lower half of the group do not have a huge advantage over the non Russell Group universities.


Tips for Gaining Admission to Russell Group Universities
  • Understand their entry criteria – research well in advance, don’t start finding out in year 12/13 – best to start thinking of it from GCSE years – the earlier you know what is required, the better prepared you will be.
  • Your GCSE grades matter. For some of the universities, they roll back from the A-level results to see how well you did at GCSE level. They are checking for consistency particularly because they pride themselves on low dropout rates.
  • Very high UCAS points – typically more A* and A grades – watch out for our tips on UCAS point boosters coming soon.
  • You get your offers before you complete your A-levels so how well you do in the first year of your A-levels is a significant element of the university’s decision – that means taking your school’s internal and mock exams seriously.
  • Proven interest in the proposed course of study as exemplified in your extra-curricular activities ie interests, hobbies, summer schools attended, relevant work experience etc
  • A robust personal statement – reach out to The Smart Kid by email to for information about our next Mentoring Workshops if you need guidance on this.
  • Anything that will add value to the campus life for example if you play a musical instrument or sport at a professional level
 What if You Don’t Go to a Russell Group University?

If you have not gained admission to a Russell Group university, it is not the end of the world. You may want to consider one of these of options – these are just some examples, there are other alternatives:

Still attend university but go for one that has a very high-ranking for the course you intend to study for example, despite not being a Russell Group university, Loughborough is highly rated for Engineering. In fact, the 2008/9 graduates in Architecture and Planning from Anglia Ruskin University and Creative Arts and Design from Bournemouth commanded the highest salaries in their field – none of these are Russell Group Universities.

Take up an apprenticeship opportunity instead of go directly to university, there are now some degree level ones available, and some of them lead to a Russell Group university degree – see our previous blog on apprenticeships for more details.

Take a year out and re-apply. During the period, you can retake your exams to improve your A-level grades and/or gain some work experience in the career field you are considering going into.

Remember nothing stops you from taking a post-graduate degree at a Russell Group university after you finish your first degree as long as you say focussed on excelling at your first degree and are clear on what you want to achieve, you are likely to gain post-graduate admission.

Time to Decide

The decision tree below helps summarise some of the pathways to consider; the underlying logic is the need to work smarter.


Whatever your decision, in order to fulfil your potential and get ahead in life and irrespective of whether you go to university or not, hard work is non-negotiable! The idea in the tree therefore is to explore how to make that hard work more effective. Basically, considering how hard you have to work to get a good degree and how much it costs, what do you need to do to get the best results for the same effort, time and money?

Are Russell Group Universities Really Better?

3 thoughts on “Are Russell Group Universities Really Better?

  • 26 April, 2018 at 14:53

    Highly informative and useful. You can never say you know it all.
    Well done! and keep it going

  • 27 April, 2018 at 15:54

    Great article! Very clear and insightful.

  • 22 September, 2018 at 06:28

    Very Useful information Thanks


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *