An obsession with branding

A number of years ago, as one of my final events as Head of Careers at Taunton School, I had to arrange a panel of speakers to present to students and parents for our annual Higher Education evening.

I contacted a range of UK universities, and for whatever reason the usual options I called upon were busy. So I reached out more widely, to a well-respected modern university just over an hour away, inviting them to speak. The response that came back was strange, and was something like:

"Thank you for your invitation. However, we visited your school last year and were disappointed that your students were being actively discouraged from considering universities outside of the Russell Group, and you rarely send us students, so we will decline your invitation."

This university had never visited the school in my tenure, and they had been in our top 10 destinations the year before, so I was confused. After some emails back and forth I realised that it was another local private school who had treated them in this way, the invitation was accepted, and a great panel discussion ensued.

When I read this article over the weekend, I was reminded of this story, and others I have experienced since returning to the UK:

The Russell Group have done a phenomenal job of branding (even if the hotel the group is named after has recently changed its name), and unfortunately so many schools and parents have fallen for the idea that only a Russell Group university is good enough for 'little Tarquin'. Nothing can be more damaging for proper university advising, and the schools who have followed the policy the article highlights should hang their heads in shame.

However, not all schools are like this, and some do sterling work in this area. In January I sat in the audience at Uppingham School as their Head of Sixth Form, Richard O'Donoghue, slowly but methodically demonstrated to his parent body the folly of only considering Russell Group universities. On one side of his PowerPoint presentation he had the list of Russell Group universities, on the other he ran through a number of rankings for popular degree subjects: on no occasion did the top 20 for each subject contain only Russell Group universities. His message to the parents was to look at the university that was best for their child, and the subsequent discussions I had with parents after that event about international university options showed how well his message had been received.

The fact that this was so noteworthy reflects the problem. In a sea of confusing and contradictory information, aspirational parents have latched onto the term 'Russell Group' as something solid they can use to understand the system, and in a competitive private school marketplace, school marketing teams have used the fact that many of their students go to these universities as a way of attracting families. In the same way as many private junior schools ban their students from using mobile phones instead of teaching their children how to use them responsibly, too many UK schools are allowing parents to bury their heads in the sand and hide their children from the real world, instead of properly educating them about what life outside the school gates will be like. We no longer live in a world where little Jonny will go from boarding school to a Russell Group university and into a cosy job-for-life in London, all facilitated by Daddy's connections.

Schools should not be allowing parents to have their prejudices confirmed, but should be challenging and educating them about the full range of university options (in the UK and internationally) that are open to their students. There is enough misinformation about university in the media for schools not to be making things worse, and schools should have the confidence to challenge this head on.

David Hawkins