Russell Group university progression: dispelling the myths

Since the Russell group of universities started publishing their ‘Informed Choices’ guide and launched the concept of facilitating A-level subjects, their advice has often been misrepresented or misunderstood. ‘Informed choices’ is a helpful contribution to advising and guiding students about sensible subject choices at 16 which keep their university options open. However, having dispelled some myths about what Russell group universities value, it has given rise to other myths which this post tries to address.

Newham sixth form college (NewVIc) had the highest number of Russell group progressors in its history last year. 71* of our students progressed to Russell group institutions in 2014 compared to 60 in the previous year. This was a higher number than any other Newham sixth form.

[*Not counting the 6 students who progressed to the Institute of Education which is now part of University College London (UCL) – a Russell group member. The merger took place after the admissions process.]

Because NewVIc is a comprehensive college, the range of students was broad and diverse in terms of their subject and degree choices. This gives us a good data set to look at the characteristics of successful Russell group applicants. An analysis of NewVIc’s Russell group class of 2014 provides some useful pointers to help dispel some of the common myths:

Myth 1. Only facilitating subjects really count. Fact: 65% of all exam entries for students progressing to Russell group universities were in non-facilitating subjects. Of the 268 advanced exam entries for these students, 174 were in non-facilitating subjects. Even if we only consider the A-level candidates (as no vocational course is facilitating), the percentage of non-facilitating subject entries is 54% (111 out of 205). If only A2 subjects are considered, the percentage of non-facilitating subject entries is still 54%. The most popular non-facilitating A-level subjects among this cohort are: Psychology and Sociology (8 entries each), Economics and Politics (7 each), Anthropology, Computing and World Development (4 each), Business and ICT (3 each), Law and Media (2 each), Music, Drama and Religious Studies also featured and some A-level students also took a Subsidiary Diploma in Forensic Science or Engineering.

Myth 2. You need to achieve at least AAB in at least 2 facilitating subjects to get into a Russell group university. Fact: 69% of our ‘straight A-level’ students progressing to Russell group universities did not hit this threshold. This was either because they were taking less than 2 facilitating subjects or because they didn’t achieved a minimum of AAB. The 16 ‘straight vocational’ students couldn’t achieve this measure by definition although most achieved triple distinctions or starred distinctions, the highest possible grade. If they are included, the proportion of Russell group progressors who didn’t achieved the ‘AAB in 2FS’ measure becomes 76%. The rather odd ‘AAB in 2FS’ measure is used in the performance tables to represent high achievement implying that facilitating subjects are somehow worth more than other A-levels. But if at least two thirds of those who progress to Russell group universities do not reach this particular threshold, it suggests that it is not a very meaningful benchmark. Perhaps the ‘facilitating’ component should be dropped and the measure could become a more objective measure of high achievement. Progression to Russell group universities is also published so there’s no need for this hybrid measure.

Myth 3. You have to study at least 2 facilitating subjects to get into a Russell group university. Fact: 38% of students progressing to Russell group universities took less than 2 facilitating subjects. 27 out of our 71 Russell group progressors took fewer than 2 facilitating subjects. This included 18 students who took vocational courses. Even if these vocational students are discounted, 17% of ‘straight A-level’ Russell group progressors studied less than 2 facilitating subjects.

Myth 4. You won’t get in to a Russell group university without any facilitating subjects. Fact: 25% of students progressing to Russell group universities had no facilitating subjects at all. Most, but not all, were vocational students; 2 of the ‘straight A-level’ students and 16 vocational students.

To conclude, we do not promote Russell group universities above any others and do not describe them as ‘top’ or ‘best’. Neither do we promote facilitating subjects as ‘harder’ or ‘better’. We give students the best possible advice based on what they are aiming for and where they might want to study and point them to a range of useful sources of information.

The evidence from our successful students is that there is not one simple formula for progressing to Russell group universities and that it is essential to be well informed about entry requirements course by course and university by university. Above all, the message is: you don’t have to limit yourself to facilitating subjects and you should always seriously consider subjects you’re going to enjoy studying.

See also: ‘Hindering’ subjects and ‘bad’ universities from October 2014.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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