How much does the name of the institution you attended matter? In theory, Higher Education is egalitarian. A degree is a degree, no matter where you obtained it, and with one you should be in the running for any graduate job. In practice, things aren’t so clear-cut.

When career advisory services list the universities employers most like to see on applicants’ CVs, the same names tend to crop up over and over again. As you might expect, there’s a strong correlation between the institutions graduate employers want to hire from and rankings lists such as that published annually by Times Higher. But there’s an even stronger correlation between the most desirable UK universities and those belonging to the Russell Group.

What is the Russell Group?

The Russell Group is an elite “club” of 24 research-intensive UK universities that includes Oxford and Cambridge; the most prestigious London institutions including UCL, King’s College London and Imperial; and elite red-brick and plate-glass universities.

But what are companies really looking for when they go out of their way to recruit from Russell Group universities? It’s not simply the quality of education their graduates have received. If it were that simple, Russell Group unis would take up the top 24 places in rankings lists of UK universities. At the very least, they’d all make the top 30. But they don’t. So what’s the Russell Group “special sauce”?

The Russell Group and employability

More than any other factor, it comes down to selectivity. Traditionally, Russell Group universities have set the highest UCAS tariffs and only admitted 18-year-olds with the best A-Levels results to their courses. And this continues to matter to recruiters.

Many employers remain sceptical about the intrinsic value of a First or a 2:1, especially given that more and more students are graduating university with the top degree classifications. Surprisingly, even after you’ve got a degree, graduate recruitment programmes will sometimes look back at your A-Levels results as a measure of both raw intelligence and drive to succeed. In this regard, Russell Group universities effectively act as a kind of pre-screening service for graduate recruiters. A top degree classification from a Russell Group means that not only do you have the raw intellect to meet their selective entry requirements, you’ve also thrived in a competitive environment once there.

Why this might be changing

But the effects of the so-called “demographic dip” – which means there will be fewer school leavers competing for an ever-increasing number of university places – may be about to turn this thinking on its head. A recent Guardian report describes how even the most competitive courses at the most prestigious Russell Group universities still had places available as of A Level results day.

Many of these universities have sufficiently high reputations to fill at least some of these vacancies with international students, but with ongoing uncertainty over Brexit this is a precarious model to rely on. And reports earlier in the year suggested Russell Groups were feeling the pinch: they made record numbers of unconditional offers to promising students, fearing competition from elsewhere.

What are the long-term effects likely to be?

There are two consequences to Russell Group institutions’ recent struggles to fill their courses. The first, which the Guardian report focuses on, is that institutions lower down the food chain are likely to struggle. Even more so than last year, undergraduate degree places are a buyer’s market. Applicants who might previously have considered a Russell Group place beyond them could well find themselves studying at one of the country’s most prestigious institutions come September.

For traditionally lower-tariff institutions, this is likely to lead to sparsely populated courses, and perhaps even to some programmes being cancelled. Given that these are also the institutions that make the least money from research – and hence rely the most on student fees – this could plunge some lower-tariff institutions into financial trouble, and increase the possibility of staff redundancies.

In the longer term, though, the prestige of Russell Group institutions – and the role that prestige plays in the graduate employment landscape – may also be at stake. Reputation lags behind reality considerably: Bristol, for example, hasn’t been near the top of a rankings list for some time but is still held in very high esteem by graduate recruiters and even amid falling tariffs Russell Group unis will continue to be synonymous with elite graduates and exclusivity for a while yet. But eventually recruiters may come to realise that a degree from a Russell Group institution is no longer the guarantee it once was of its holder’s ability to excel in a competitive workplace.