Although recent admissions and research policies seem to be biased in favour of Britain’s older universities, the advantages are not all on one side. When is a newer university the better career choice, and when should you aim directly at the redbrick road?
Which universities are which?
Whilst the power elite may almost universally emerge from the Oxbridge nexus, the vast majority of academic posts in the UK are obviously elsewhere. There are now well over 100 institutions entitled to call themselves universities, most of which fall into the “post-92” group: 1992 being the year that John Major’s government granted university charters to a number of former polytechnics and colleges of higher education.
This provided opportunities for higher education to a wider population. The idea was to increase the quality and scope of research in subjects seen as applied or vocational, such as art, education, and information technology. Expansion has continued since 1992, although the last few years have also seen some contraction in the sector due to difficulties and mergers.
The “redbrick universities” were once “new universities” themselves. This group is made up of six large civic universities—the University of Birmingham, University of Leeds, University of Bristol, University of Sheffield, University of Manchester and University of Liverpool. Their original mission was to drive the engine of British innovation through bolstering its base of young scientists and engineers, but all have long ago widened their remit to include a full array of degree options.
The redbricks now form the core of the Russell Group of universities (an organisation of the nation’s foremost research institutions), which also includes a few post-92 entrants.
What are the real differences?
Most academics who have worked at both types of university will tell you that the only important differences exist at the course level. That means that job-seekers would be wiser to check out course rankings for their subject when targeting their CVs, instead of relying on the overall reputation of the university in question. There are some former polytechs that are hands-down tops in specific fields, some redbricks whose leafy campuses are home to poorly resourced side offerings.
Regardless, in a class-based society like Britain, reputation can matter. There is still some snobbery about post-92s, and lingering cachet adheres to the redbricks. This perception may not be entirely reality-based, but many commentators fear that the divide is widening. The redbricks certainly attract more research funding than their newer competitors, and research funding is a huge driver for staff opportunities.
There can be differences in the student body, with more ethnic and class diversity in the post-92 sector. Redbrick name recognition is strong abroad, so diversity can be from international high-flyers rather than a representative selection of British entrants.
Making the right choice.
However, as the Institute of Education’s Peter Scott noted in an article celebrating the social and academic impact of the post-92s on the 20th anniversary of Major’s charter expansion: “the students going to universities this autumn were not even born when it was abandoned. They are not interested in timeworn distinctions.”1 Every university has its individual quirks and characteristics, so membership in any “club” may tell you less than simply visiting the campus, meeting staff and students, and closely examining the teaching and research will do.
1 Scott, Peter (2012) “It’s 20 years since polytechnics became universities—and there’s no going back,” The Guardian, 3 September.