22 Aug '13

News Letters: Surely all universities should be modern – and good for students

I was sorry to see Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of leading universities, adopting the propaganda term "the modern universities" to refer to the "post-92" (mostly ex-polytechnic) universities (Letters, 20 August). This is a term the latter have understandably coined to give themselves a positive identity compared with the established, top research universities. However, the term does a disservice to the UK university system as a whole – especially misleading for the all-important overseas applicant – by implying that our best universities are antiquated and hostile to change.

As a retired academic who helped build up an ultra-modern school of modern languages at a Russell Group university, I have always been irked by the appellation "modern" for all that are not old-established institutions. Moreover, although in 1992, on egalitarian grounds, I was all for abolishing the old binary divide, I now think the polys should have emulated the first-class German technische hochschulen, specialising in technical subjects at the highest level. At the time, of course, decisions were based on funding issues and the desire to drive down the "unit of resource" to the lowest possible level.
Alan Bance
Emeritus professor of German, University of Southampton

• The representative of the Russell Group universities claims that they score an 88% student satisfaction score compared with the average of 85% for all universities. I can find no information on the statistical reliability or validity of the National Student Survey. However, if it is similar to other polls carried out by Ipsos Mori, its accuracy would fall in the range of +/–3% and the differences between the Russell Group and the overall average would not be statistically significant. Further, I note that in a table of the top-scoring NSS overall satisfaction scores, Russell Group universities occupy nine of the top 24 places. Surely, as the most elite group they should occupy all 24 places? Perhaps self-selection is not a good measure of excellence?
Name and address supplied

• The Russell Group has successfully manufactured an identity that is synonymous with "good universities", and this is constantly reinforced by the government and by newspapers, including the Guardian. In my sixth form college, many students explicitly aspire to a Russell Group university, genuinely thinking that these are the best. But we know that this is not true. There are many excellent universities in the 1994 group, for example, such as Bath, Lancaster, UEA and others – research-based universities with an international reputation and high satisfaction rates. The obsession with the Russell Group is distorting student applications and aspirations, and may have significant unintended consequences.
John Rubinstein
Principal, Woodhouse sixth form college, London

• Further to the letter from Matthew Hotopf (20 August), might I add a small gloss? About 20 years ago I was on the senate of my university when, under routine business, there was a proposal to nominate a particular senior professor to the governors of a local "top independent school". Tentatively, I asked why we were doing this. After consternation from the vice-chancellor and pro-vice-chancellors, they concluded it was OK because many of them had children at that school. I never understood the logic but decided silence was prudent.
John Ffitch

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