Ministers Need to Get Over Their Russell Group Fixation and Recognise the Excellence Throughout UK Higher Education

05/04/2012 14:05 BST | Updated 04/06/2012 10:12 BST

On first glance Michael Gove's plan to involve universities in drawing up A Level exams is a sound idea. As well as relying on the credibility of A Levels to determine the eligibility of candidates for their courses, universities are a source of unparalleled academic expertise on every conceivable subject area. It makes perfect sense for them to play a role, alongside others, in determining A Level content. The problem is though, Gove has indicated that only a select band of institutions will be invited to play a part, those in the 'Russell Group'. This indicates a particularly limited, and arguably snobbish, view of UK higher education. It rests on the misguided assumption that Russell Group members represent the pinnacle of academic excellence and that their insight should be valued above all others. Plainly this is ludicrous, but we should not be too hard on Gove. He is only the latest in a long line of political and media figures to have been enchanted by the Russell Group's mythology.

The Russell Group name conjures up a pleasingly simple idea of a small group of institutions holding a monopoly over a singular conception of excellence. It's an incredibly compelling idea, and one which holds much sway over the mainstream media - not to mention prospective students and their families. It's not hard to see why this is. The Russell Group's membership includes a few genuine household names, and they have a formidably charismatic spokesperson ready to dash off to the Newsnight studio at the first whiff of 'social engineering'. In reality though, the idea that academic excellence begins and ends with the Russell Group is fanciful to say the least.

Far from being a badge of academic accreditation, Russell Group status merely denotes membership of a particular club of like minded Vice Chancellors, working together to pursue shared interests. Forming policy in relation only to this particular grouping is alarmingly shortsighted.

The UK's world renowned reputation for higher education is in part down to our sector's strength in depth. We benefit from a rich variety of institutions which offer excellence in many forms. The1994 Group alone includes institutions like Bath, which sits comfortably in the top ten most academically competitive institutions; Loughborough, which year on year is hailed for the quality of its student experience and will this year play host to team GB; and Leicester, the only so called elite institution in the country to achieve stretching targets to widen participation in higher education. The Group is collectively strong in research, leading the field in 16 subject areas, including physics and philosophy.

It cannot be healthy to exclude this set of institutions from policy making.

This may well read like sour grapes from a rival universities group, keen to see our own sectional interests pursued. But our wish is not for politicians to focus only on our own institutions to the exclusion of all others, but rather to recognise the full scale of excellence in UK higher education. This means paying close attention to Groups like the Universities Alliance, which is leading the charge to encourage university links with business, as well as Million+, which does much to extend opportunity well beyond traditional university applicants. It would also be worth taking a look at institutions that are not signed up to any particular club but are pursuing individual ambitions, like Kent, Greenwich, Aberystwyth and many others.

And yes, the Russell Group should absolutely be in the minds of policy makers. They are an outstanding set of institutions with a heritage that offers a unique perspective. But it should be one voice among many.

For the most part the high profile of the Russell Group raises nothing more than a rueful smile form the rest of us in higher education. We all know that they are not 'the UK's most elite universities' but good for them if they want to revel in that misapprehension. It becomes a little more serious when it results in measures which undermine UK higher education as a whole. Granting the Russell Group exclusive influence over the composition of A Level exams is one such measure. The Dux scheme, which funds high achieving 14 year olds to visit Russell Group universities, regardless of whether other institutions might present better options, is another. And arguably, the move to uncap student places only for applicants with AAB or above at A Level is yet another.

We all share Michael Gove's vision of an academically competitive higher education sector where excellence is prized above all else. Clinging on to misty eyed visions of that bear little relation to the realities of higher education will do little to achieve this. Ministers like Gove need to get over their Russell Group fixation and start recognising the full extent of excellence throughout UK higher education.