When people think about the top universities in the UK, the first thing that comes to mind must be the G5: Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial, UCL, and LSE. Some people would include Durham and Edinburgh in that list, just because the two institutions are so old. But how many people would bring up Lancaster University in a conversation about the UK’s top universities?
There is a sentence plastered over Lancaster’s website that tries to summarise her reputation: “Lancaster is ranked No.1 in the North West and No.10 in the UK by the Guardian, and is in the top 1% of universities globally.”
Statistics can be very persuasive but they only reflect one side of university life here. The reality is, we still have a lot of people who know nothing about Lancaster. There are a lot of theories floating around as to why our university is so unfamiliar, but I think it’s because Lancaster is such an independent organisation. She never joined many academic consortia, including the Russell Group (an association that claims to represent the highest levels of academic excellence in both teaching and research and has now hit 24 members). Therefore, people won’t know too much about Lancaster if they are not in profession areas.
The exact reason why Lancaster never joined the Russell Group is unknown, but I know of one potential explanation. In 1994, when the Russell Group was established, Lancaster was a small university and may not have had enough funds to support joining the group. If that’s true, it could explain why in 2007 Lancaster joined forces with seven northern Russell Group universities and created the N8 Research Partnership. It’s almost as if the partnership was designed to convince others that Lancaster has the same high-quality research as its Russell rivals.
You can understand why the University would take that step. Compared with an even younger university, Warwick, which was established in 1965, Lancaster’s growth was really slow. 12 years ago, when Warwick was ranked at number eight in the UK by The Times, Lancaster remained at 21. Hence, for the last decade Lancaster has concentrated on academic research, not in league with other universities but without their help. I can’t say it’s an appropriate policy but I can say, if Lancaster didn’t create such a clear image to the public and didn’t show its strength in academia, it would not have risen so fast in the rankings.
However, does a high ranking always mean a strong reputation in the minds of the general public? It’s hard to say. Yes, Lancaster has great achievements in research and academic areas, but how many students are considering research after they graduate? Parents and students prefer to examine things like rates of graduate employment, salary at early employment, and famous alumni when they comment on universities. But Lancaster is barely competitive in these fields as against more traditional universities. In the UK, some employers don’t care about league tables, but in the rest of the world, employers contend fiercely for the graduates of universities with the highest ranking and the longest history.
In my opinion, Lancaster is like a child who just came into adolescence and is anxious to prove herself. The N8 Research Partnership can be treated as evidence that our institution is in league with other top universities, but this only happened when Lancaster had enough funds and won outstanding research reputation. Therefore, now that national awards are not such a rarity for us, it’s likely that Lancaster will start working with other top universities in order to get the respect it so youthfully pursues.