Professor Sir Steve Smith

Levels of Advice, and Understanding When It’s Not Needed

When you know what you want and have a good plan of how you want to achieve it, be careful before you blindly follow more general advice.

After my last post on reputation, I read an interesting Guardian piece on whether students should be encouraged to set their sights on Russell Group universities:

“…teachers now have an explicit incentive to focus on the “big brand” universities, following a controversial decision in the Department for Education last summer to collect data on how many pupils each school was sending to Russell Group universities. At a roundtable in the department this month, leading figures from outside the group will fight to derail this new measure – which has sparked a fierce row behind the scenes.”

The article mentions Sophie Cousens, who has been interested in marine biology since she was a child. Her main focus was to study the subject at Plymouth University. Cousens explains that she researched beforehand and was careful about making the right decision for her.

What interests you (photo by AlphachimpStudio)

What interests you? Where are you headed? (photo by AlphachimpStudio)

However, the Guardian reports that Cousens felt pressured to apply to a Russell Group university. The advice was seemingly for her own good, but she had already done the necessary research. Cousens had looked at Russell Group universities and found they either did not provide a marine biology course or that the course did not appeal.

Teachers had an incentive, as well as a piece of general advice which Cousens appears to have long surpassed. That advice may have been useful to some, but not to a person with clear plans. Unsurprisingly, there was a conflict of interests here. I doubt the pressure Cousens faced was spiteful. However, it does highlight that advice works on different levels.

When you have a detailed understanding of your aims, you’re in a good position. General aims are more likely, if not finding you draw a blank completely. None of this is to be ashamed of.

What’s important is to be aware of where you stand one way or the other.

Sophie Cousens knew what she wanted. General advice wasn’t helpful in this situation. Consider this point made by the Russell Group’s director, Wendy Piatt:

“All Russell Group universities demonstrate excellence and critical mass in research as well as a first-class educational experience, and excellence in enterprise and innovation.”

And the following comment from Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University, Steve Smith (Exeter being a member of the Russell Group):

“It does matter which institution you go to. The evidence is clear that it does affect your future, and we should encourage students to go to the best institution they can.”

Both Piatt and Smith provide a general argument to the situation. Whether or not ‘the evidence is clear’, this is different to Cousens’ individual research. These two perspectives view reputation in very different ways. In both cases, reputation has legs. There is no right or wrong.

As general advice, a push toward a Russell Group university may help a student with good grades and few plans ahead of them. I’m not saying the advice is correct, but it is one way to help someone think about the future, consider what they can achieve, and focus on a specific set of universities so they’re not overwhelmed. The question is, how many people are best served with this level of advice?

Cousens didn’t need pushing in that direction. As Steve Smith explains:

“I think it is a mistake to assume that everyone should aspire to go to a Russell Group university…There are other good institutions doing different things, and some great subjects that aren’t offered at Russell Group institutions.”

So where do you stand?

  • For students with a bold plan, advice should be about giving them the best chance of reaching that goal;
  • For students with a vague plan, advice needs to be tailored carefully to help them build something more concrete;
  • For students with good grades but poor plans, more general advice may be reasonable. Not everybody knows what they want, but that doesn’t make them a lost cause. At the same time, general advice should still be varied and not based on pressure toward a single goal, such as attending a Russell Group institution.

Excellence is apparent in different ways, just like reputation. Whatever level of advice you need, find what seems most useful to you and act on it accordingly, because that’s what matters.

“People always talk about, reputation...