The Russell Group | Guide for Prospective University Applicants

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When you begin to think about university, and start the application process, you’ll often hear the words ‘Russell Group’ floating around. When it finally comes to choosing your five universities to apply to, you may begin to consider the Russell Group as one, or even multiple, of your university choices. So, what does the Russell Group actually mean when it comes to universities?

The Russell Group is an organisation of 24 public research universities in the UK. They aim to make education accessible across the world and lead global research. The Russell Group members are some of the UK’s most esteemed universities, including the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Members are able to leave and join the Russell Group, but the same 24 UK universities have upheld the organisation for years.

In this article, I’ll guide you through everything you need to know about the Russell Group and the universities that are a part of it!

What is a Russell Group university?

A Russell Group university is a UK university that belongs to ‘The Russell Group’.

The Russell Group is an association of 24 public research universities, formed in 1994. Over the years, universities have left and joined the organisation, but I’ll be providing you with the list of Russell Group universities as of 2023 later in this article.

As stated on the Russell Group website, Russell Group universities “teach a quarter of all undergraduate students, a third of all postgraduate students, more than a third of engineers, four out of five doctors and dentists, 50% of linguists, 58% of physical scientists and 63% of mathematicians.”

Therefore, the term ‘Russell Group’ simply refers to the university’s position as a member of the group and is not related to their original foundation.

You can read more about this on the Russell Group’s website, linked for you here.

What is the point of the Russell Group?

The Russell Group website states on this page of their website that “its aim is to help ensure that our universities have the optimum conditions in which to flourish and continue to make social, economic and cultural impacts through their world-leading research and teaching.”

They work in 6 different key areas, which are:

  • Sustainable funding
  • Research
  • Immigration
  • Access
  • International partnerships
  • Environment

Essentially, the universities that are part of the Russell Group want to make their educational experience high-quality, innovate and accessible to students.

The Russell Group’s goal is to continue to help improve and expand the circulation of information around the world. They also state on their website here that they “produce 68% of the UK’s world-leading research”.

This is the main reason why Russell Group universities are so esteemed and why many students aspire to study at one.

What is the difference between Russell Group universities and other universities?

In terms of the educational experience, there is not much difference between Russell Group universities and non-Russell Group universities.

How your course is taught will depend on which university you study, and you may find that a Russell Group university’s style of teaching doesn’t suit you.

However, Russell Group universities generally have more resources available to students, which is why they are often regarded as “better” than non-Russell Group universities. You can learn more about whether Russell Group universities are “better” in this Think Student article.

For example, in a Russell Group report, it was reported that the ratio of academic staff to students was 1:8 at Russell Group universities, but 1:16 at non-Russel Group universities.

There is also a difference in postgraduate opportunities. The same report states that over a lifetime, Russell Group graduates earn on average 10% more than non-Russell Groups. You can read this report linked here on the Russell Group website.

What is the difference between Russell Group universities and Red Brick universities?

Other than Russell Group universities, there are other groups of prestigious universities in the UK. These include the Red Brick universities.

The Red Brick universities are a group of universities that all gained university status not long before the start of the first world war. As a result, they are much newer than other prestigious universities, such as the University of Oxford.

The term “Red Brick” was first used as an insult to describe their much newer and less established status but now is a way of describing these universities as another prestigious group.

The 6 original “Red Brick” universities were the Universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield, all of which are also Russell Group universities. Nowadays, the Red Brick universities also include the University of Nottingham and the University of Reading.

Therefore, the difference between the Russell Group and the Red Brick statuses are what they mean. This is because the Russell Group are much more prestigious and are particularly leaders in research. Whereas the Red Brick are all quite prestigious, but the term only actually recognises their age.

You can read this article by Oxbridge Home Learning for more information.

What makes a Russell Group university good?

As mentioned previously in this article, the Russell Group’s access to resources is a huge benefit for students.

In the Russell Group profile report, linked here, they state that Russell Group universities are “large, complex organisations with an average annual income of £560 million; for other UK universities the average is £119 million.”

With over four times the funding than non-Russell Group universities, the Russell Group is able to afford high quality research and access to resources that students at other universities simply don’t have access to.

Furthermore, as the Russell Group universities are some of the most popular in the UK, there are likely to be many supported social opportunities at these universities.

Russell Group universities consistently rank highly in both UK and World University rankings. Their high standard of education, as well as their large funding pool, make them popular choices of university and uphold their prestigious reputation.

Which universities are the Russell Group universities?

As mentioned earlier, there are 24 different Russell Group universities. These are:

  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Bristol
  • University of Cambridge
  • Cardiff University
  • Durham University
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Exeter
  • University of Glasgow
  • Imperial College London (ICL)
  • King’s College London (KCL)
  • University of Leeds
  • University of Liverpool
  • London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
  • University of Manchester
  • Newcastle University
  • University of Nottingham
  • University of Oxford
  • Queen Mary University of London (QMUL)
  • Queen’s University Belfast
  • University of Sheffield
  • University of Southampton
  • University College London (UCL)
  • University of Warwick
  • University of York

You’ll notice that these 24 universities are popular among university applicants. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are ‘better’, but they do have a lot more applications than other universities.

The Russell Group website has a list of all their universities with relevant links to the pages about them. If you’d like to find out more about individual Russell Group universities, check out this page of the Russell Group website.

Are Russell Group universities more competitive to get into?

Yes. As mentioned earlier in the article, Russell Group universities are a lot more popular than non-Russell Group universities.

For that reason, these universities have to be a lot more selective in their application process because they have a lot more applications to look through.

I’ll be talking about which universities in the Russell Group are the most difficult to get accepted into later in the article, so keep reading for more.

However, the large number of applications shouldn’t deter you from applying yourself!

The Guardian reported that in 2022, the offer rate for Russell Group universities was 55.1%, compared to an overall offer rate of 66.4% for the rest of the UK. You can read more about that report in this Guardian article.

This data means that there’s generally a 10% lower chance of being accepted into a Russell Group university over a non-Russell Group university. However, if you believe that you have what a Russell Group university is looking for, then you should definitely consider applying to one!

What are the top 3 Russell Group universities?

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2023 saw 3 Russell Group universities make the top 10 list.

The University of Oxford was ranked the best university in the world, followed by the University of Cambridge ranked third. Other than these, the next Russell Group university to make the list was Imperial College London at number 10.

Based on this list, the Oxbridge universities and Imperial College London are the top 3 Russell Group universities. You can read the full ranking on the Times Higher Education website here.

Another popular global university ranking, the QS World University Rankings, placed 4 Russell Group universities in their top 10.

The University of Cambridge ranked second, followed by the University of Oxford at fourth, then Imperial College London at sixth, and University College London at eighth.

Both of these global rankings place Oxbridge and Imperial College London as the top 3 Russell Groups in the world. You can check out the full QS rankings here.

Which Russell Group university is the easiest to get into?

The University of York is the Russell Group university with the highest offer rate.

As shown in data provided by this Save the Student article, the University of York has an offer rate for 78.7%. The University of York ranks 94th in a list of 132 universities in the UK in terms of its offer rate.

The closest Russell Group with the highest offer rate after University of York is the University of Sheffield, with an offer rate of 74.7%.

If you’d like to read the full list of UK university offer rates, check out this page on the Save the Student website.

Given the prestige of the Russell Group and its universities, it is quite surprising to find a Russell Group as far down as the University of York is on this list.

However, it shows you that Russell Groups may be prestigious, but they are not out of reach! If you really want to go to a Russell Group university, it’s definitely possible if you work hard.

Which Russell Group universities are the hardest to get into?

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the Russell Group universities have quite low offer rates.

In Save the Student’s list of UK university offer rates, seven of the top ten universities with the lowest offer rates in the UK are part of the Russell Group. They are:

  • University of Oxford: the lowest offer rate of any UK university at 19.2%
  • University of Cambridge: the second lowest offer rate of any UK university at 21.8%
  • London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE): the fourth lowest offer rate in the UK at 26.1%
  • University College London (UCL): the fifth lowest offer rate in the UK at 29.5%
  • University of Edinburgh: the sixth lowest offer rate in the UK and the lowest offer rate of the Scottish universities, at 29.7%
  • Imperial College London (ICL): the seventh lowest offer rate in the UK at 30.1%
  • King’s College London (KCL): the eighth lowest offer rate of any UK university at 39.3%

This data was provided by this page of the Save the Student website.

What A-Levels should you take if you want to get into a Russell Group university?

Which A-Levels you decide to take should depend on the course you want to study, not the university. However, it’s always good to get an idea of which A-Levels you might need for the future.

On university websites, universities will outline the admission requirements for all of the courses they offer. These will include the A-Levels you must have, and probably some they’d prefer as well.

For example, if you wanted to study a science, you would require whichever science A-Level related to your course. However, universities would probably also recommend taking an A-Level like Maths to help your future studies.

I’d personally recommend searching your degree (if you know what you’d like to study) at several universities and check out the admission requirements for them. There will probably be an overlap in the A-Level subjects they ask you for.

Alternatively, the Russell Group themselves offer a service called Informed Choices. Using their website, you can find out the A-Levels that will be most beneficial for you to study depending on your course.

Their website is linked for you here. You can use the service whether you know what you want to study for certain or not!

Do GCSEs matter for a Russell Group university application?

Yes, GCSEs do matter to a certain extent for a Russell Group university application.

To progress to higher education, you need to have the three core GCSEs: English Language, Maths, and Science.

The passing grade in the UK for these GCSEs is a grade 5 (or a grade C), so as long as you have those 3 GCSEs, you will be able to make a Russell Group university application.

If you don’t have these GCSEs already, don’t worry. Before you advance, you have the option to resit those exams or to retake those GCSEs altogether.

Are Russell Group universities harder to graduate from?

It’s a common misunderstanding that just because Russell Group universities are harder to get accepted into, they’re also harder to graduate from. This isn’t the case!

Of course, some educational experiences are more intense than others. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are renowned for being intense and stressful. However, the university experience is different for everyone, and you’ll deal with things differently to other people.

The pass mark for the majority of universities is 40%. Therefore, although some experiences may be more strenuous at particular universities, they technically aren’t any harder to graduate from than a non-Russell Group university.

How many students go to a Russell Group university compared to non-Russell Group universities?

According to the Russell Group Profile report, linked for you here, “Russell Group universities teach on average nearly 24,000 students compared to an average of 13,000 at non-Russell Group universities in the UK.”

This means that on average, Russell Group universities have almost double the student body of non-Russell Group universities.

Is it better to go to a Russell Group university?

Overall, it is better to go to a Russell Group university over a non-Russell Group university if you are concerned with going to a top UK university.

There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious and wanting to go to a well-renowned university! If that’s your end goal, then you’ll definitely want to go to a Russell Group university.

Similarly, if you’d like to continue into postgraduate studies, you may want to look at what Russell Group universities can offer versus non-Russell Group universities.

However, if you aren’t really concerned by the prestige or reputation associated with universities, or postgraduate study, then whether you go to a Russell Group or not should just depend on what you want to study.

It isn’t a good idea to pick a university solely based on the reputation it has – you may decide you want to go to a top university and then realise that the teaching style isn’t for you.

If you can, I’d recommend attending the open days of several Russell Group and non-Russell Group universities and seeing how you feel about them both.

Advantages of studying at a Russell Group university

There are many advantages to studying at a Russell Group university.

Firstly, as previously discussed in this article, the standard of teaching at Russell Group universities is very high, and this is reflected in their global rankings.

If you choose to study at a Russell Group university, you can be sure that you’ll be getting a world-class experience!

Another benefit to studying at a Russell Group university is that since they are high-ranking, your postgraduate opportunities will likely be better than non-Russell Group universities.

Students who graduate from Russell Group universities are likely to have a slight advantage over students who graduate from other universities due to the prestige of the Russell Group. For more advantages of studying at a Russell Group university, check out this article by A&J Education.

Disadvantages of studying at a Russell Group university

There are no real objective disadvantages to studying at a Russell Group university. However, there may be some personal disadvantages!

As mentioned previously in this article, a Russell Group university may not offer a particular course or teach it in a way that works for you.

You shouldn’t apply to a Russell Group university just because it’s a popular university; make sure to do some serious research into course specifics and find out if they appeal to you.

Another disadvantage is that Russell Group universities are often oversubscribed, particularly the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. This means that, as mentioned above, there is less chance of you being accepted into a Russell Group university.

However, this lower acceptance rate is not as severe as it may seem, so if you want to study at a Russell Group university, go for it!

Is it worth going to a non-Russell Group university?

Yes. It’s worth going to any university you want to.

Universities all teach their courses differently and include different content, so you might find that a non-Russell Group university teaches your course in a way that is better suited to you, than at a Russell Group university.

Which university you attend shouldn’t be a reason for people to judge you, or for you to judge other people. Whether you attend a Russell Group or not doesn’t define you!

It isn’t a good idea to go to a university just because it’s a popular choice — make sure you still put time and effort into picking one that’s right for you.

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