Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the divide between universities established before and after 1992? The answer is yes. The former polytechnics have broken through what is known as the binary line much more dramatically than ever before, judging by the number of "new" universities now appearing in the top half of this year's league table compiled by The Complete University Guide in association with The Independent.
At the head of the pack of thrusting upstarts is the ambitious and entrepreneurial University of Hertfordshire which comes 45th, followed by Nottingham Trent in 46th position. They are ahead of Aberdeen, the venerable Scottish university founded in 1495, as well as Stirling and Dundee. They also outperform the "old" university of Hull, founded in 1927, and Aberystwyth, the oldest Welsh university, established in 1872.
Professor Tim Wilson, vice-chancellor of Hertfordshire, is cock-a-hoop at the news. "We don't engineer our activities to meet the requirements of league tables," he says. "But we are absolutely delighted. This reflects the hard work that has been done by my university over many years." Top of the league table again is Oxford, followed again by Cambridge, both of which excel on most indicators. Languishing at the bottom for the second year running is London South Bank, together with Bolton and Greenwich Universities.
The top 10 spots are occupied by many of the same universities as last year, albeit in a slightly different order, apart from Bath which has nipped from 14 to number nine, and York, which has moved from 11th to 10th position.
Other universities have taken a tumble, particularly The School of Oriental and African Studies in London which fell from ninth to 15th, Leicester from 12th to 20th, Stirling from 35th to 48th and Gloucestershire from 58th to 71st.
Other institutions with improved rankings are Edinburgh, which leapt from 21 to number 11, Southampton, up from 20 to equal 13, and Aston, from 23 to 13, not to mention Northumbria up from 73rd to 58th and Lampeter, now merged to form the new Trinity St David's University, from 101st to 77th.
Compiled by Bernard Kingston, a veteran of higher education league tables and former careers director at Sheffield University, the Complete University Guide ranks institutions on nine measures: student satisfaction, research assessment, entry standards, staff/student ratio, spending on academic services such as libraries, spending on facilities such as function rooms and health centres, good degree results, job prospects and completion rates.
Last year the introduction of a student satisfaction indicator, as measured by the National Student Survey, had an impact on the rankings. This year the most important change is the use of data from the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) of 2008, which changed the methodology of previous RAEs.
Before last year, research was rated by university departments being awarded an average score, which concealed mediocre work in big departments but did not reward good research in small units in the new universities. This was deemed unfair. Now research is rated by departments being given a profile that uncovers what the Higher Education Funding Council for England calls islands of excellence, in other words academics who are doing outstanding work, maybe in smaller departments in less famous places.
One of the reasons that Hertfordshire did so well is thought to be its RAE performance. Another is spending on facilities. "We have spent a huge amount on student facilities," says the vice-chancellor Tim Wilson. "This has been deliberate policy. We spend on learning and teaching and we spend an enormous amount on science, technology, engineering and maths in terms of making sure our labs are 21st century. We spend too on ensuring that our studios have the best kit. Students come first."
Bernard Kingston, chief author of the tables, says they show that applicants should look beyond the universities habitually in the lead. "They need to find courses that meet their specific needs at institutions which are investing heavily in ensuring a high quality student experience, both academically and in the working environment.
"A quality university education is clearly no longer the sole preserve of the household names in higher education and the evidence suggests that the line that once clearly separated the established and post-1992 universities is, while still lingering, increasingly porous."
Last year's Complete University Guide showed the binary divide to be more or less intact. Although this year's still has the bulk of the new universities concentrated in the bottom half of the table and the "old" universities in the top half, the line separating the two is much less clearly delineated now. Hertfordshire, Nottingham Trent, Robert Gordon, Ulster, Oxford Brookes and Bournemouth Universities are all in the top half of the main league table.
Although Oxford comes in top place overall, Cambridge beats it hands down in the subject tables, which measure four things – student satisfaction, research assessment, entry standards and graduate prospects. This year, we do not have room to public the subject tables, but they can be accessed via the Complete University Guide website, www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk,by students interested in finding out where subject strength lies.
There are 62 subject tables, three more than last year, and Cambridge comes top in 33 of them. Cambridge teaches undergraduates in 46 of the 62 subject tables and appears in the top 10 for all those 46 subjects.
By contrast, Oxford comes top in eight subject tables, and the London School of Economics top in four.
This year again only 11 of the top 20 institutions are members of the Russell Group, which traditionally attracts the lion's share of funding for research, but this year the University of Durham, a member of the 1994 Group of small and beautiful universities, has succeeded in breaking into the top five.
Eight of the top 20 are members of the 1994 Group, and one, the University of Aston, is not attached to any university grouping.
The Complete University Guide can be viewed in its entirety online. It includes an interactive table, which you can tailor to create your own ranking based on your own preferences, such as graduate prospects or student satisfaction. For more information go to www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk .