November 9, 2017

Group mentality – is it time to move beyond broad brush university labels?


25 years ago, the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act saw 35 UK polytechnics reclassified as universities. With many institutions still tied to the ‘former poly’ label, we ask whether such groupings are still worthwhile.

A desire to classify, pigeon-hole, or aggregate in some way is not a new phenomenon in the higher education sector. From Redbricks to Russell Group, there are many means to group universities but how relevant these catch-all terms remain could be questioned – particularly from a student perspective.

Certainly they continue to be used as a common classification. Recently, Lord Andrew Adonis, the former Labour education minister, made the case to a House of Lords committee that the decision 25 years ago to make more than 30 polytechnics – the so called Post 92 group – into universities was a “mistake”.

The “former polys” moniker has always had a whiff of the pejorative but how relevant or appropriate are such terms today? At a time when the dynamic between potential student and institution has been turned on its head, these broad brush collections of institutions arguably have become too superficial.

Is the shared lustre of attending a Russell Group university alone enough to lure students? The current recruitment data probably says it is. But will it continue and should institutions – even the so called elite – have to work harder when there are so many other metrics of value and real life experience?

We live in a world increasingly addicted to data and comparison and even the most mundane domestic transaction can be subject to customer scrutiny or peer review. It is little wonder then that choosing a place of study – and reconciling the potential debt which comes with it – means research into an education destination is thorough and multi-sourced.

The recent TEF classifications added yet another information layer for potential students and although there were grumblings from the sector about their introduction, it is hard to fault the logic behind greater measurement of teaching quality.

So perhaps now more than ever, in order for individual institutions to ensure their recruitment pipelines remain healthy, it’s less of being part of the in-crowd and more about standing out from the crowd that will appeal to future students.