Universities Guide: Top of the class, again

Making sure students are satisfied is one reason why the ancients are at the head of the pack
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The Independent Online

Oxford University's position at the top of the league table for 2009 sees the ancient university pushing its competitor, Cambridge, into second place and regaining the pole position that it occupied for five consecutive years before that.

The Complete University Guide, published today for the first time in association with The Independent, shows Warwick – in fifth position – to be the top university outside London and the dreaming spires of Oxbridge, reinforcing its position as a university that pays attention to its research ratings as well as its teaching.

Other universities outside the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London which have done well this year, improving on their performance last year, include Durham (in sixth position), Lancaster (10th), York (11th) and Leicester (in 12th position).

Compiled by Bernard Kingston, the grand old man of university league tables and former careers director at Sheffield University, The Complete University Guide judges institutions on nine measures: student satisfaction, research assessment, entry standards, degree results, completion rates, job prospects, the student/staff ratio, spending on academic services such as libraries, and spending on facilities such as careers and health services. This is the first year that a student satisfaction measure has been included in the subject tables.

Student satisfaction as measured in the National Student Survey has made its mark on the rankings, Kingston points out. "The introduction of this measure has helped to consolidate the positions of Oxbridge, St Andrews, Leicester, Loughborough and Exeter as first class universities," he says. "In our continuing refinement of the methodology, next year we will have new material for Research Assessment and it will be interesting to see what effect that will have on the rankings of the various universities."

A quick glance at the table shows that the binary divide between the "old" universities (those in place before 1992) and the "new" former polytechnics (those which became universities after 1992) remains more or less intact.

The top new university this year is Nottingham Trent, which does better than the old university of Bangor in Wales.

But there are some surprises. The University of Glasgow has leapt up the table to overtake Edinburgh, one of the most fashionable universities in the land. So the ranking for universities in Scotland now has St Andrews at the top, followed by Glasgow in second place and Edinburgh in third place. This should worry Sir Tim O'Shea, the principal of Edinburgh University, who takes pride in the excellence of his institution but may have neglected the small matter of student satisfaction.

If you click on the student satisfaction column (which you can access on The Complete University Guide website www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk) you will see that Edinburgh comes 93 out of 113 universities, above Liverpool John Moores and below City University. The top university in Wales is Cardiff, and in Northern Ireland, Queen's, Belfast, comes first, as in previous years.

Four new universities have seen big rises and falls. Hertfordshire and the University of the West of Scotland (formerly Paisley University) have risen dramatically up the table, and Lampeter and Glasgow Caledonian have dropped very dramatically.

Hertfordshire's rise may be explained to some extent by its high spending on facilities. The University of the West of Scotland is the result of a merger between Paisley and Bell College. They asked that their data not be merged, which may explain the university's showing. Lampeter's fall is explained partly by its small size. It has low numbers of students, which means that shifts from one year to the next can be quite noticeable.

Although Oxford has beaten its ancient rival to the top place, Cambridge dominates in many more of the subject tables (see pages 8-12) than Oxford, coming first in 35 subjects, including virtually all of the sciences, medicine, engineering, foreign languages, history, classics, economics, English and law.

Oxford came first in only four subjects: geology, Middle Eastern and African Studies, music and politics.

Cambridge also outperforms other universities in the league tables of the measures used to rank institutions. It comes top in the tables for student satisfaction, research assessment and entry standards. But Oxford leads the tables on two other counts – for good honours degrees and for completion rates.

A new university – Hertfordshire – leads the pack for the amount of money it spends on facilities, revealing how much cash some modern institutions are prepared to put into making life more pleasant for their staff and students.

Only 11 of the top 20 universities are members of the Russell Group, which attracts the lion's share of funding for research, and which contains the majority of staff working in the most highly-rated departments. The top five, however, belong to the Russell Group.

The remaining nine universities in the top 20 are members of the 1994 Group, so-called because it was formed in that year and whose members include Durham, St Andrews and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

For the first time the subject tables feature most of the higher education institutions in the United Kingdom. Those included must, by definition, have their own degree-awarding powers and produce detailed annual statistics. They include specialist institutions such as the Central School of Speech and Drama, the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Agricultural College.

The Open University and Birkbeck College London, don't appear at all because they exist only for distance learning and part-time students respectively.

Similarly, the University of Buckingham, Britain's only private university, does not have a full set of data. Some institutions, too, have been deliberately omitted because they are largely or exclusively postgraduate. Some of these include Cranfield, London Business School and Manchester Business School.

Regrettably, two universities – Liverpool Hope and London Metropolitan – refused to release their data and so are absent from the tables.

The only addition to this year's table is Buckinghamshire New University, which used to be Buckingham Chilterns University College, and comes in at a respectable 86th.

The Complete University Guide can be viewed in its entirety online. It includes an interactive main table, enabling users to create their own ranking based on their individual preferences, such as how much weight they want to give to student satisfaction, for example, or to graduate prospects.

For more information go to www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk