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4th April 2023

Why we need to look beyond the Russell Group

Kim McLellan discusses why the Russell Group can't service demand and what it means for other universities.

There are big opportunities to be had for the forward-thinking universities who communicate their difference to a receptive audience.

Please don’t get us wrong, we love the Russell Group (RG), appreciate what they do and have many clients here… BUT, quite simply they don’t have enough space for all our UK students and can’t service demand.

Last month, Hunterlodge friend and former UCAS director Andrew Hargreaves, Founder of DataHE, popped into the office to share his insights into the latest higher education data. He revealed that 2022 was the worst on record for students hoping to get into university. We saw a record number of applicants at 694,000 – better than any other year – and yet the placed number by the January deadline was only the sixth largest in history, one of the biggest disparities on record.

A small part of this is because the RG has become too popular for students, influencers, and employers – with everyone over-valuing this on CV’s.

So, what’s going on in higher education to cause these worrying figures? And what are the opportunities for those beyond the RG and how can they capitalise on the excess demand?

A crisis in the making

Since the introduction of fixed fees in 2012, the real value of £9,250 tuition fee has plummeted due to inflation. The government has also capped fees at current levels until the 2024/5 academic year. And the RG says they are making a loss of £1,750 per year teaching home students.

This means that they are looking to more lucrative international students to balance the books – meaning even fewer UK domestic places.

For UK students in 2022, RG universities made fewer offers, made harder offers, and rescinded offers where students hadn’t applied on time or didn’t meet the requirement.

Anyone with an ABB or BBB expects to go to RG. Teachers are telling them to be aspirational. When they don’t get the offer, the data shows they drop out entirely. Clearing 2022 saw over 7,000 UK students with AAA+ not get placed!!!

Much of this is a policy issue in the UK. The UK government has a huge loan book made up of student debt that will become 50% of the UK’s GDP by the middle of the century. The government is waiting for the next election to see if they need to tackle this issue or can pass it over.

Waiting in the wings

These are big issues that will likely come to a head this year – but UK universities have a great opportunity to capture students. All they need to do is develop a compelling proposition and communicate their unique value.

The first thing to work out is where on your ‘value curve’ you can compete with the RG. League tables, probably not. Value for money and employability options – absolutely. It’s about telling those authentic stories about people who go there (students and lecturers) and go on to do amazing things.

Hunterlodge client, the University of Surrey, is a perfect example. In 2022, their graduates were voted the most employable in the UK, second only to the University of Oxford, in the latest Graduate Outcomes survey, published by the HESA. Finding their voice and knowing how to shout about it is a different matter though.

Remember, the RG does not hold a monopoly on what really matters—getting students jobs. The lion’s share of employers are looking for graduates with soft skills, critical thinking and who are generally well-rounded and grounded. Areas that lots of universities, with the right partnerships, attitudes and values are already delivering on – but not communicating!

If these Uni’s don’t rise up, with the ever-rising international cohorts, the scenario is more unplaced UK domestic students…

So, whilst there are big issues at play, there are also big opportunities to be had for the forward-thinking universities who communicate their difference to a receptive audience.

If you want to discuss this further or want help developing a compelling proposition and creative positioning that better reflects your results, ambitions and USPs, then please get in touch with kim.mclellan@hunterlodge.co.uk

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