Michael Carr's Exclusive Interview

The Russell Group is an association of 19 major research-intensive universities of the UK. Formed in 1994 at a meeting convened in the Hotel Russell, London, the Group is composed of the Vice-Chancellors/Principals of the Universities listed opposite. There are also a number of active sub-groups. The aims and objectives of the Russell Group are to promote the interests of Universities in which teaching and learning are undertaken within a culture of research excellence, and to identify and disseminate new thinking and ideas about the organisation and management of such institutions. It consists of member organisations of University of Birmingham, University of Bristol, University of Cambridge, Cardiff University, University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow, Imperial College of Science, Technology & Medicine, King's College London, University of Leeds, University of Liverpool, London School of Economics & Political Science, University of Manchester, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, University of Nottingham, University of Oxford, University of Sheffield, University of Southampton, University of Warwick and University College London.

By Wing Zheng
24 November 2005

Wing: When speaking of Russell Group, people compare it with Ivy League in the US; and they also see the Russell Group as the top universities in the UK. Many of them know you are good, but don’t quite know how exactly you are good. Please give us a breif but clear introduction to your excellences.

Michael: Well you are right that across the globe, leading universities are working together to common end, the Russell Group in the UK is no difference from a number of other groups in that regard. Within the UK, what’s distinctive about the Russell Group is it brings together the very leading universities who have major research, rather major research interests. And we combine those research interests and abilities with high quality teaching in a very good research-intensive atmosphere. So students get the benefit of, not of the very modern up-to-date courses, but courses taught on the basis of the very latest knowledge and the very latest techniques and abilities. So that that combines the fact the most Russell Group universities are very large and have very comprehensive range of subjects, the students experience with the facilities and so forth is also very good; and the combined experience one is worthwhile and enjoyable.

Wing: When they choose universities, Chinese students put incredibly huge emphasis on various league tables, such as The Times. But some of the methodologies used to build the league tables may not quite apply to international students. For international students, are these tables still worth relying on?

Michael: Umm, you are quite right. League tables need to be treated with a degree of caution. Umm, it is possible to construct the league tables on as any criteria, or by any combination of criteria. And it is important that students from China are clear what it is they want from universities, and are not too overtaken by league tables, which may be looking into a range of factors. But to a large extend, the league tables in the UK do try to reflect a comprehensive range of activities, and therefore do give a broad indication of relative quality, a very broad of the quality. But I think any one who understands universities will say, that above all, students must feel comfortable in the universities they go to, and therefore they’ll need to look a little more and around, and make sure that the courses they are doing are the ones they want to do, the subjects they are doing are the one they want to do, the context, the accommodation, the location, these are just as important in some ways as league tables. So I would suggest that students think about much more broadly; and I would say even on that broader consideration they’ll still find that Russell Group institutions, the Russell Group, has given them that ??? broad experience and support which students need; and support is very important. Students coming here from China or anywhere in the world do need to have, or need to feel that there’s a welfare structure; I mean at the best sense structure, which they can relate to and which they can resort to in a foreign land. But when they need it, Russell Group universities have a very good reputation for providing comprehensive support services, as well as high level academic support services.

Wing: Talking about RAE and TQA, are these figures misleading or over-influencing on students, especially international students when they come to choose universities? What constructive advices can you give us?

Michael: The UK’s done more than most countries in refining and developing proper means of evaluating research quality and teaching quality, so it’ll be quite wrong for me or anyone else to undermine the value of the research assess exercise and the teaching quality assessment which are undertaken in our universities. And of course, I would say that Russell Group universities do extremely well in both those emphases. But I would still stay with what I said earlier that beyond those essential characters, you do need to go to top rated research universities with its high quality TQA. But beyond that you still need to be sure the courses that you’re going to are the ones you want to go to that gives you what you want, and that you’ll feel happy and comfortable while you’re there.

Wing: In Russell Group universities, what is the relationship between teaching and research?

Michael: Well that’s one of the principles of the higher education, which is extremely invaluable; but one sometimes difficult to get over to students, because it is intrinsic to the departments of the whole university which you’re going. So that one can have extremely high quality courses, in a non-research and test institution. But if you want to be taught by individuals who are leaders in their fields, who can give you the most cutting edge view of where the subject is and what kind of training you need, who will command the support of major employers when they’re looking to employ graduates from home or overseas, then it is important that you go to a departmental university, where the combination of teaching and research excellences are brought together to benefit of students experience.

Wing: Overall, the Russell Group has over 60% of the total research funding of HE institutions in the UK, while you are only 19 universities in total. As I am a representative of Chinese students in the UK, how well are you using the money? Have you not become over-pride, rich and bureaucratic? Can you provide any valid evidences?

Michael: Well, it is true that one of the effects of the RAE has been increasing concentration of the research funds in a smaller number of institutions. But of course, that is the product of excellence; it is not the product of institutions simply demanding and getting more money. The RAE in its past and future works on the basis of the assessments of individual staff; and if those individual staff happen to be all concentrated, the best of the individual staff happen to be concentrated in a limited number of universities, then the funds will get concentrated in a limited number of universities. Whether we’re using them well or not is measured up by two things. Firstly, there’s not just been one research assessment exercise; we are now about to enter at least four research assess exercises. The purpose of having repeated research assess exercise is that institutions are being assessed how well they’re using their funds and how well they’re developing their research in relationship to their funds. And if we weren’t doing a very good job, and weren’t doing high quality research, then we’ll start to loose the money very quickly. So that the very fact that research has not been drifting away from us, it has been focusing upon us, demonstrate first of all we are, we are showing that we’re using the money extremely well, and extremely competitively. Secondly, of course, we all have our own systems of accountability, to ensure that we’re using money efficiently and effectably. So we think on all yards that we can demonstrate that we are being regularly examining on how well we’re using our research funds, regularly examining whether we should keep or expand the amount of research funds we’re having. And our success I think is a proper recognition of the quality of our staff from research teams in our universities.

Wing: In our interview with the UCL vice provost, Professor Michael Worton, he mentioned about a newly introduced “transitions program”. Do you know about this, and what’s your opinion?

Michael: I’m afraid you have to be more specific; I’m not sure what you mean by “transition program”.

Wing: OK. Well, actually we’re just trying to find out, I mean, how aware you are about what and how the universities within the Russell Groups are doing.

Michael: I’ll try to indicate to the outset. The Russell Group is an organization, doesn’t try to comprehensively understand or monitor everything the Russell Group universities do. That will be impossible. We’ll need to look for some particular things. And maybe I’m aware of the transitions program but under a different terminology. I’m just not aware of the terminology, that’s all.

Wing: OK. So that is a program that helps overseas students get used to new life and new study environment quickly and comfortably.

Michael: Ah! ~~ I see. I know it under a different terminology. Yes, that is one of the things I was referring to earlier about the extent to which I believe Russell Group universities offer a more comprehensive service to overseas students. Because many of the Russell Group universities are ancient institutions, they have a history of dealing and welcoming overseas students for many, many, many decades. They therefore have great experience of dealing with overseas students. One of those things we pride ourselves on is that we do tailor specific arrangements to help students to acclimatize to the UK, and to study in the UK on arrival. And that can be built in special events, special courses prior to arrival, and it can be special courses in language and other areas after arrival. But we do put a great deal of effort all over our institutions to that kind of course, we call them different things in different institutions. But we do our best to make sure that student do get relevant support, which they can tap into as they want. Not force down if they don’t need it, but if they want the support they want to come cross, which helps them to feel involved, and to help them to adjust to the new climate.

Wing: How other Russell Group universities are doing on this?

Michael: On support to students? Well as I said I think, from my knowledge of them which is not comprehensive, but pretty good. I will say that the facilities and support we offer students from overseas, including those from China, it is good as you’ll find in any other institution in the undertaken, on very often a great deal better.

Wing: Would you suggest the role of professors in old universities is somewhat different to those in new universities?

Michael: Well, my answer of that will depend a little bit in terms of what it is that each university’s professors are expected to do. Umm, it does vary a little bit from institution to institution. In Russell Group universities then, there is in turn a little bit of variation, because the professors cover a wide variety of roles and duties. But in general in a Russell Group then, a professor is expected to be a leading figure in his subject and research; would be expected to take an active interest in research and post-graduate, under-graduate teaching; and are also usually expected to take some interest also in the wide prefer of the institution. Now there are of cause difference of emphasis in different part of the United Kingdoms in different universities. But never the less, to different degree of skills and different degree of intensity, most professors do a similar kind and range of work. So that I wouldn’t draw, I don’t want to draw a massive distinction between one type of universities and another. But obviously, it’ll appreciate that if our universities are getting 60% of the research fund then you’ll expect professors in the Russell Group may in general be more heavily committed to research, and research funding and research expertise.

Wing: What is from your point of view the prospect of all other universities apart from the Russell Group? Do they have any advantages? Are there any particular areas they tend to do better then Russell Group universities?

Michael: The Russell Group has never ever promoted itself as anything other than a group of leading research universities. We would be at pains to emphasize that there are many high quality institutions in the United Kingdoms out with the Russell Group. Some of those are smaller, research-intensive universities of high quality, others are very good, very instinct new universities doing some innovative things on a different campus. So that we would be the first to recognize that there is many aspects of high quality previsions elsewhere in the United Kingdoms, which always to be properly recognized and supported. We would obviously want to emphasize that we believe that we have in the Russell Group a unique combination of high quality teaching, high quality research, comprehensive subject matters, comprehensive student support, comprehensive facilities, tradition. And all those things come together just brief things start marks out, that doesn’t mean to say that there are not very good and very worthwhile institutions all over the United Kingdoms at the same time.

Wing: An analysis by EducationGuardian.co.uk showed that students choosing to study at post-1992 universities increased dramatically. What do you think has caused this? Why are the new universities successful, apart from the points you’ve just given?

Michael: Right, all the emissions are very, very complicated subjects, and of course there has been a massive growth in emissions of all universities over the last 10 or 12 years. I think what ones has to distinguish is the fact that Russell Group universities are… now are you talking about home or overseas students?

Wing: Both.

Michael: Let’s take home at the moment, home students. In Russell Group universities, our courses are constrained by the number of students they can take by the government. There’s a limit how many students we can take, very sensitive. And you’ll appreciate that one of the difficult for foreign students is selecting students from the vast applications we receive. So that we will have, for many of our courses, very high numbers of applications in place from students, all of them may have straight As in A Level. So that I think when one looks the dynamics of admissions will have to remember, that we’re not dealing with a simple in and out model. Many of the most popular institutions could take many, many more students if the places were available; but for scale or other reasons, they’re not available. And therefore, the student demand does need to be directed elsewhere. So I think one needs to be careful in interpreting dynamics of the missions. And that will the same apply to overseas students, of course. Russell Group universities have a great many of applications from overseas students, and again there’s just a limited how many students we can take into our institutions. Partly because of simple physical factors, but also because we value overseas students, not just for the revenues; I know that it isn’t holeproof. Of course revenues are important, but the Russell Group universities are pride themselves on being international universities. We compete on the global stage, not every university in the United Kingdoms competes on the global stage. To be an international university, you have to have an international student community. It is important to our students from the United Kingdoms to have overseas students who they can mix and get to know; as it is for the overseas students incoming to the United Kingdoms, not to be coming into a course which is completely in a date with overseas students, but have a proper mix of home and overseas students. That gives the right balance, the right experience. To both sets of students, the groups that they can get to know each other, and so on. So that again, although we can take far, far greater numbers of overseas students, for variety of reasons we choose not to do so. We have a healthy number, but we can’t just open the front gate just if you wanted to.

Wing: Chinese people tend to have a conservative view towards higher education system. Some of them still have a deep-rooted perception of higher education being academic, not too market-oriented. I just saw a banner advertising of a university yesterday saying that apply for us, and you would have the chance of winning an Apple Computer. What do you think about this?

Michael: Well first of all, I know China quite well, and I know how important education is to Chinese families. And I think that’s some of the things they should be proud of, should treasure, and should not in anyway, take as being old fashioned. It is a mark, I think of a great maturity that they see the vital importance of educating their young children the best possible and, I know the sacrifice many of those Chinese parents have to go through, to get their students to the United Kingdom. All the more reasons why we as Russell Group universities on return that students choose to come to us, we give them the best possible experience we can. So that the first thing I have to say is, there is nothing wrong whatsoever, in having a very conservative and principle view of education and higher education. Secondly, I don’t think necessarily we are seeding an over conservative choice of subjects, which is true. It is true I know, that not many students coming from China, for example, are terribly interested in the humanities and social sciences. But that maybe because naturally our humanities and social sciences are very western orientated, where as of course science, engineering and medicine are ubiquitous and universal. So I think that’s, a lord for that matter, but you know, I think that partly explain why the choice of subjects are as they are. There is some recognition I think, of course, that if one has made great sacrifice to get one’s sons or daughters to the universities then, one hopes they’ll go into professions which will earn them a lot of money, to trace the social change they’re looking for. So that does tend to some extend to identify the subjects they want to be. So again, I wouldn’t criticize in any sense, nor would I be surprised by, the general choice of subjects. Is it wrong to try to offer incentives? Every university needs to think about its place and how it would attract students. Provided what’s been offered is not gimmicky. I don’t think a person will confuse it as a gimmick; it’s a very useful thing to a student. And I can quite understand that. All I would say is I’m sure that students and their parents are sufficiently knowing and mature, not to make a decision on whether to go to one university or another, simply on the basis in one university you might get a computer or not. (Laughing) I think that I would assume that we take a broader view on that. That still makes the offer a good one, if you want to go to that particular university.

Wing: I think there is a trend for UK universities to change from very academic, into semi-academic and semi-market-orientated. Do you think this is the future of the education system?

Michael: One of those things, which the universities, which the UK is developing, I think is, the international community will find helpful, and that is, regard developing of such diversities of courses, of different objectives and different styles, we’re just trying to provide something that is tailored to individual students. All I would say, however, in saying that, is that you’ll find many of those courses we’ve been developing in Russell Group universities, there’re lots of innovations in our own teachings and our own courses. What I would say of course is that one can sometimes be blinded by the fact that the course title doesn’t change. They think that somehow it isn’t enough, a very applied course. I would argue, for take an example, you take an engineering course in a Russell Group university, you’re not doing a totally theoretically concept. The course, because of the research, because of the fact that our universities are major inter-industry firms, and we have major research interests with the private sector, you’ll find that our courses are very much driven to what the high calibre employer’s want of their students. We’re constantly adjusting our courses to meet the needs of global employers. So that the fact that you come and do a lectured engineering in universities as in the Russell Group, doesn’t mean to say that you’re doing a course as it was 20 years ago. The course will be dynamic; it will be up-to-date. And we will help to provide you with the very applied understanding of the subjects and get you a good job.

Wing: Talking about job, what would you say to students studying and about to study in Russell Group universities, about their career prospect?

Michael: Well again, some students come to us knowing from day one what job they want to do. Others deliberately or whatever it is, have no idea what particular jobs they want to do, and nor coming to a particular course. I think what I have seen over the recent years, students are more concerned these days, to bear in mind masses of employ abilities at the end of their course, because of finance and so on support; and therefore are much more interested in how employers appears to rate universities, what the statistics suggests about employability after graduation, the kind of jobs that students can go to from the Russell Group institutions. And again, I’m speaking only for the Russell Group, what we can say is that all the major blue chip employers in the United Kingdoms and overseas are interested in our graduates and take large number of our graduates.

Wing: Can you also talk about companies that come in to the universities on events?

Michael: Of course. Our interest in companies is very multi-dimensional. It may be a major research initiative, it may be interested in a course or a particular professor, or whatever, or it may be simply in recruiting our graduates. There is a virtual circle of activities with employer, which is expanding, which results in now they’re having greater familiarity with what we’re doing, a great interest in what we’re doing. And we do find that our students are always well provided for when we have recruitment fairs and so for institutions.

Wing: Let’s come to the final question. What would you say to prospective Chinese students before their arrival?

Michael: Is that before they’ve decided where they want to go?

Wing: No, not exactly. They’ve already applied for courses and have been offered their places in Russell Group Universities.

Michael: Well I would say, I would congratulate them on getting successful admitted into very high quality Russell Group institutions. I would, I don’t need to encourage them to work hard, because all Chinese students work very hard, and have very good success rates, extremely good success rates. I would encourage them to get the maximum they possibly can from their experience. Mix as much as they possibly can, get to know as many students from as many countries as they possibly can. See the UK and the Europe while they’re here; get to experience that. And try without diluting their hard work in anyway academically, enjoy themselves socially at the same time. As I’ll say, without taking away that they need to very hard work academically, network as much as they can with friends and colleagues and staff and students and their home cities, in their home institutions.