Is a Redbrick Education really a necessity?

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In a country where the cost of entering Higher Education has tripled in the past three years, the question has been posed as to whether studying for an Undergraduate Degree is the most well-informed decision for every young adult upon completion of their Advanced Qualifications, or whether it is starting to be judged, more as “a rite of passage” amongst those being swayed by its promise of success.

If so, is it truly more beneficial to gain this qualification from an Institution that has been grouped as being “Redbrick”, and more recently termed, as a “Russell Group”, University?

Undertaking some of the most highly-rated research in the world, and ruthlessly maintaining a reputation for academic excellence, it is easy to understand why the prospect of study at one of these boards of education seems highly alluring, but is it necessarily the most well-advised choice for every 18 year old in the U.K, and is it truly a necessity?

The Emergence of “Redbrick”

The term “Redbrick” University initially appeared when referring to a select group of six, civic Universities that were founded in the key, industrial cities of Britain; over time, this evolved to include British Universities founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, situated in main cities all over the country. In the 1920s, it was Prime Minster Stanley Baldwin who rather confidently announced that these six, civic Universities were a development “which historians of the future would regard as a Renaissance” (Timeshighereducation.com). Although bold, his statement was not entirely wrong, given that by the start of the 20th century, “Redbrick” provided access to Higher Education for those previously excluded on the grounds of class, personal belief, or gender. In the present day, the phrase “Redbrick Education” colloquially refers additionally, to the Institutions that fall into the Russell Group, within which all six “Redbrick” institutions belong.

With regards to this argument, it is the level of funding, grants and research that the Russell Group and “Redbrick” Universities are gifted with that sets them apart from those not branched within these groups. In 2010, Russell Group members received approximately two-thirds of all University Research Grant allowance and Contract Income for the U.K, thus, the group is widely perceived as representing the best, and most established Universities, in the country (Russellgroup.ac.uk). Indeed, in the 2016 National Tables, Russell Group members contribute towards 7 of the top 10 in The Complete University Guide, 8 in the Times/Sunday Times Good University Guide, and 6 in The Guardian University Guide. Evidently, the correlation between “Redbrick” institutions and level of prestige, resultant mainly from historical academic success, is a positive one.

The Appeals of a “Redbrick Education”

As previously outlined, the core difference separating “Redbrick” Universities from those that do not belong in the same group, is the level of precedence given to their research capabilities. Careers Adviser Gill Sharp states that “by banding together, Russell Group universities are able to put more funding, contracts, grants and awards their way…success breeds success” (Which? University). Indeed, it seems that the more money that is invested into research, the better equipped Universities become at enticing high-ranking staff members and acclaimed students, consequently reinforcing their academic respect.

However, Russell Group and “Redbrick” institutions aren’t the only bodies choosing to unite; University Alliance is a network of British universities which was formed in 2006, adopting the name in 2007. They are a group of “business engaged universities that claim to drive innovation and enterprise growth” (Which? University) whilst Million+ is a group of institutions made up of public policy ideals. University Alliance themselves, state on their website that they are “universities with a common mission to make the difference to [their] cities and regions”, and that they “innovate together, learn from each other and support every member to transform lives and deliver growth”; encapsulating this is their core message, “making a difference” (Unialliance.ac.uk). With common ideals and forward-thinking goals, are “Redbrick” Universities and other institutions all too dissimilar? Of course, some Universities decide it to not be within their interest to join an existing academic group, and this bears no direct, negative consequence.

Wendy Piatt, Director General of The Russell Group, has outlined what she believes sets Russell Group institutions apart from those without the same membership; not only do “graduate recruiters rank ten Russell Group universities in the Top 30 universities worldwide”, but “graduates typically receive a 10% salary ‘top-up’ over others…because the combination of teaching and research excellence creates the ideal learning environment which produces ‘work ready’ graduates” (Which? University). Additionally, it is claimed that Russell Group Universities have higher than average student satisfaction rates, and lower than average “drop-out” rates.

It stands to reason that, ultimately, Degree result, course marks, work experience and interview tact will be what secures one’s position in a company, but a first-rate Degree from a world-leading, Russell Group University can sometimes be what distinguishes one candidate from another with a similar skill-set, and has a proven history of benefiting those searching for a role in competitive career sectors. Russell Group institutions also possess a variety of schemes that offer help so students can become “work ready” when the time comes to apply, and it is often the case that big-name recruiters look to visit Russell Group Universities when hosting stalls and exhibits at Careers Fairs, therefore offering a raised stance for those students looking to boost their chances of employability. Additionally, when considering undertaking a Masters’ Degree or PhD, studying for a “Redbrick” education is more favourable than not, particularly if fresh departmental research is undertaken.

Perhaps the most important factor in this debate, is the fact that ultimately, students study at these Institutions with one, main outcome in mind; employability. This is where “Redbrick” Universities find their downfall. According to The Telegraph, in the past three years, “Oxford has produced more accountant clerks than management consultants and more bar staff than young economists”. It seems that here is the area whereby other Universities excel, and Russell Group institutions fall short. Indeed, bodies of education only recently acquiring University-status are providing the global society with a multitude of high-calibre, employable young people. Having considered The Higher Education Statistics Agency, The Guardian has found that “Aston University ranks above Oxford [with regards to] employability”, and that “Aston is not alone in its triumph over major leading universities; Surrey, Robert Gordon University and Edinburgh Napier are ranked amongst the highest in terms of employability after graduation”.

Limiting Factors

Despite the advantages a “Redbrick” education possesses, not all are crucial; as humans are individual, so is the identity of each academic institution, hence, not all will meet the requirements of a soon-to-be Undergraduate. Indeed arguably, there shouldn’t be a “one-size-fits-all” policy, given the manner by which education uniquely moulds to a person’s strengths and desires. With a recent rise in tuition fees, cost is standing as probably the most important factor to consider when deciding on whether a University education is the correct choice, yet two other, important limiting factors in particular are:

  • Course Dependency

It becomes almost easy to place a precedent over “Redbrick” institutions when published League Tables consistently place them in the top-tier rankings year on end. Although having rightly garnered this status, it is not truly reflective of each, individual course the University will offer; it is for this reason that League Tables organised by Course/Vocation have more recently been devised. As previously outlined, there exists a strong correlation between research/funding and acclaimed success, and it is often the explanation as to why more students seek to study “core” subjects, such as English, Physics and Geography, at Russell Group Universities. It is here where non-“Redbrick” Universities excel; those wishing to become a Teacher seek to study at Edge Hill University in Lancashire, whereas Loughborough University is known for Sports and Sports Science. Central Saint Martins is well-known for its courses in Fashion, and The University of East Anglia for its Creative Writing courses.

  • Employability

In terms of the likelihood of employability, Russell Group Universities have proven to bear strong statistical support, with Wendy Piatt stating that “19 out of 20 students who have attended [these] Universities go on to work or further study soon after graduation” (Russellgroup.ac.uk). This may be the case, but according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, not all “Redbrick” students are as employable as expected, with Aston University ranking above Oxford.

Breaking the Mould

It remains clear that studying at a Russell Group University possesses a wealth of benefits, and has contributed to the successes of many budding entrepreneurs and successful professionals on a variety of career ladders, but what about those to which a “Redbrick” education does not apply? Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, left school at 16 after completing compulsory education, was Knighted in 2000, and with an estimated net worth of £2.7 billion, is the U.K.’s 7th richest citizen (Britishgas.co.uk). A similar story comes in the form of Karen Brady; having left school at 18, she successfully turned Birmingham City football club’s fortunes around by age 23, and is now the vice-chairman of West Ham United, a trusted adviser on The Apprentice and the U.K.’s Small Business Ambassador (Karrenbrady.com).

Equally as successful in other ways, are members of alumni from non-“Redbrick” institutions; Dame Carolyn McCal, the CEO of EasyJet, gained a Degree from The University of Kent (Easyjet.com); Christopher Bailey, the CEO of Burberry Group, gained an Art Degree from The Royal College of Art (Burberryplc.com); Simon Segars, the CEO of Arm Holdings plc, studied at The University of Sussex (Arm.com), and Adam Crozier, current CEO of ITV and multi-millionaire, studied at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University (Itvplc.com).

Thus, gaining a “Redbrick” education should not truly be a question of necessity, but one of individual choice that should be carefully considered in order to cater to the wants and needs of a person’s professional, and personal, desires.

 

All information stands correct in accordance with their references.

 

Olivia Daisy Lee

Executive Researcher, IRG