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Durham University

Department of Sociology

Research Projects

Publication details

Boliver, V. (2015). Are there distinctive clusters of higher and lower status universities in the UK? Oxford Review of Education 41(5): 608-627.

Author(s) from Durham


In 1992 the binary divide between universities and polytechnics was dismantled to create a nominally unitary system of higher education for the UK. Just a year later, the first UK university league table was published, and the year after that saw the formation of the Russell Group of self-proclaimed ‘leading’ universities. This paper asks whether there are distinctive clusters of higher and lower status universities in the UK, and, in particular, whether the Russell Group institutions can be said to constitute a distinctive elite tier. Cluster analysis of publicly available data on the research activity, teaching quality, economic resources, academic selectivity, and socioeconomic student mix of UK universities demonstrates that the former binary divide persists with Old (pre-1992) universities characterised by higher levels of research activity, greater wealth, more academically successful and socioeconomically advantaged student intakes, but similar levels of teaching quality, compared to New (post-1992) institutions. Among the Old universities, Oxford and Cambridge emerge as an elite tier, whereas the remaining 22 Russell Group universities appear to be undifferentiated from the majority of other Old universities. A division among the New universities is also evident, with around a quarter of New universities forming a distinctive lower tier.

Department of Sociology