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The Celtic fringe receives a terrible reckoning

Scottish and Welsh universities slid down the league table. Was this because of their stand against top-up fees? Andy Sharman and Beth Mellor analyse the figures

Scotland and Wales, the odd-men out in the top-up fees regime, are expected to raise eyebrows this year as their universities post big overall losses. Compared with last year, 10 of Scotland's 13 universities moved by at least eight places, and not all of them in the right direction. In a similarly chaotic showing, six of Wales' nine universities moved by eight places or more, with five institutions going in the wrong direction.

The news will come as no surprise to experts, who have long argued that the policy of no top-up fees for home students put Celtic universities at a disadvantage (Wales is changing this policy from 2010). In Scotland, Glasgow Caledonian recorded an impressive 22-place leap – an improvement bettered only by Lampeter in Wales, which has just merged to form the new Trinity St David's University.

But Abertay Dundee posted dismal results that saw it fall from 68th to 95th. Other universities suffered big losses: Stirling fell 13 places to 48th, and Strathclyde fell nine to 40th. Scotland's universities made an overall loss of 18 places, putting the blue nation firmly in the red.

A similar trend was seen in Wales, with Aberystwyth down 10, Swansea and Bangor down nine, Glamorgan down eight and Newport down 16. There were brighter notes: Cardiff rose slightly to 36th; UWIC held on at 65th; and Lampeter rose 24 places, the biggest gain of any university, thanks to a high student satisfaction rate and a fairly low student-staff ratio. But even with this anomaly, an overall loss of 27 places paints a worrying picture for higher education in Wales.

In terms of regional rivalries, the big news north of the border was Edinburgh re-asserting itself over its big-city rival Glasgow. Last year saw Glasgow leap over the capital's institution, as it jumped 14 places to 16th place nationally. But Glasgow's 10-place drop this year, alongside a resurgent Edinburgh, which leapt up 10 places to 11th, saw roles reversed. Both institutions, however, still trail St Andrews, once more Scotland's premier university in the rankings at seven.

The changes in English regions were less dramatic, but there were some interesting shifts and usurpations.

London's best universities held on to their positions from last year, with the exception of the School of Oriental and African Studies, which dropped out of the national top 10. Goldsmiths and Kingston University performed well, moving up seven and eight places, respectively, in the national ranking.

In the South-east, the University of Southampton has begun closing the gap with world-leading Oxford, which inevitably leads the way in the region. The coastal campus rose by seven places to reach No 13 nationally, thanks to an improved ratio of students to staff and a boost in academic services spending of more than £150 per student.

But the performance of three of the newer universities in the region gives cause for concern. Buckinghamshire New University and Canterbury Christ Church University, which only gained university status in the past five years, slipped 17 places each. Southampton Solent was down by 15 places. All scored well below average in research assessment and posted increases in the staff-student ratio this year.

Further west, Bath broke into the top ten. Despite slightly decreasing spending on academic services and facilities, its consistently high scores for research and student satisfaction meant it rose by five to overtake other 1994 Group universities such as Lancaster, Leicester and Loughborough.

The top three universities in the East Midlands all slipped by at least five places this year. The University of Leicester fell by eight places and lost its pole position in the region. This will be particularly disappointing given Leicester's triumphant 12-place leap in last year's tables, attributed partly to significant investment in new facilities. This year also saw a turnaround in the fortunes of Teesside and Sunderland, with Teesside skipping up the table by 10 places to overtake its rival in the North-east, boosted by increases in spending and an encouraging 10 per cent rise in the number of Teesside alumni going on to graduate jobs or further study. Sunderland's waning completion rates and growing ratio of students per member of staff contributed to the decline in its fortunes.

There were few surprises in Yorkshire and Humberside, with York, Sheffield and Leeds retaining their top spots in the region. However, the University of Huddersfield improved dramatically, leaping up the national table by 21 places. Substantial increases in spending as well as an improved staff- student ratio and an increase in completion rates have all helped to improve the results of the former polytechnic.

Lancaster University remains the best place to study in the North-west, despite dropping a couple of places to 12th on the national table. Salford moved up two places, overtaking two of the regions' newer universities, the University of Central Lancashire and Manchester Metropolitan University.

There was no notable change in the performance of Northern Ireland's universities this year, with Belfast's Queen's University still streets ahead of Ulster.