Beating Russell Group elitism


Clare Patterson

Healthy inter-campus jokes have always been a part of student life, from sporting matches to league tables, to comparing courses with friends at home. Dating back to the thirteenth century between Oxford and Cambridge, rivalries are alive and well between Glasgow and Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde, Glasgow and every other Scottish University. But there comes a point at which rivalry becomes elitism; the disparity between the average social class, family income or school grades of different universities leads not so much to rivalry as to a staunch sense of superiority amongst ‘posher’ universities. Not only does this keep our outdated class system alive, well, and flourishing, it seriously misunderstands the value and importance of higher education.


University entrance requires achievement of certain grades in school; the higher the grades required, the more ‘prestigious’ the University. Theoretically, this sounds like a simple, fair enough system, but in practice, school grades rely so much on circumstance and social privilege that they cannot be a true reflection of merit. A student from a middle class family, whose parents have been to university and value higher education, who attend a school with smaller class sizes which emphasises the importance of university, who can afford to pay for travel to open day visits and for private tutors in subjects which pose difficulties, who see the inevitable, enormous debt after uni as a worthwhile investment  is more likely to achieve higher grades – and see university as a viable, often inevitable, option. A student whose parents work long hours on low wages, sees the cost of university as prohibitively expensive, whose parents didn’t go to university and cannot help with A Levels or Highers will face many more obstacles on the road to the Russell Group. I’m painting a broad picture here, but people often consider a student at a Russell Group University to be more intelligent and capable than their counterpart at an ex-poly, although the reality is that the playing field is far from level.


I changed schools between GCSEs and A Levels, my new school turning out to be much more middle class, and with more students going to universities higher up in the league tables; on results day I saw some of my new classmates disappointed by rejections from Oxbridge, while my old friends were overjoyed by acceptances from Northumbria. I never actually felt that my new friends were markedly cleverer though, just that they benefited from different circumstances.


People forget that these much sneered-at universities, the ex-polys and new builds, are often very good. Strathclyde often ranks above Glasgow, particularly in subjects like Engineering and Maths, and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy teaches at Manchester Metropolitan University. These institutions excel in more specialised courses like journalism or fashion, or in vocational ones like nursing. Often the focus on more specialised or practical subjects is demeaned by those in more academic fields but graduates from these programmes are much more likely to find themselves in steady employment; compare a nursing graduate from Caledonian with a Politics graduate from Glasgow; one is more likely to have a stable income straight out of university.


The idea of ‘learning for learning’s sake’ is seen as a very bourgeois, middle class philosophy, but it doesn’t have to be, and it shouldn’t be. The belief that a university degree is a means to an end, a good investment for a higher salary, or a rung on the career ladder is not an invalid one, but it is by no means the only one. The option to spend time learning deeply about a subject that you love and are deeply interested in should be available to everyone, not just the financially or socially privileged. The university fee cap of £9000 per year – set to increase in coming years – is to most people a large sum of money, and many highly ranked universities charge the maximum they are permitted. Ex-polys and less prestigious universities are often a little cheaper, in the £6-7000 region, and for some students are their best option, often allowing for living at home while studying and amassing less debt from student loans.
Ultimately, there just isn’t a real defence to be made for mocking people for learning, for wanting to learn. Education and knowledge are valuable things no matter where or how they’re gained, what financial benefits they reap or what subject they’re in. So please, no more jokes about Cale.  


Share this story

Follow us online