Leading article: In search of the best universities

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Today we are publishing The Complete University Guide containing a league table of all 113 universities in the United Kingdom, minus the five that didn't want to take part. This rates institutions on a range of nine measures, including how satisfied their students are, their research, entry standards, degree classifications and spending on academic services and facilities generally.

It was to be expected that the old binary divide separating those universities that existed before 1992 and the former polytechnics would begin to erode. This year's table shows that, 17 years on, this has indeed happened. It is a healthy development, demonstrating that universities can, by their own efforts, improve their standing by investing in new buildings and new subjects and setting out to give students what they need.

In the case of Hertfordshire, the new university that has done best, Prof Tim Wilson has set out to create a thoroughly entrepreneurial university with superb facilities and a close relationship with industry. The vocational emphasis does not appear to have compromised its academic standing because the institution has a respectable record in research. One behind in the league table is Nottingham Trent, and both come ahead of Aberdeen University, founded more than 600 years ago, as well as the elderly Dundee and Aberystwyth.

Whether the new universities will continue their climb up the rankings, given the public spending cuts that threaten, is debatable. In his budget the Chancellor announced "savings" of £400m in further and higher education. That is a hefty cut. If you assume this is shared equally between higher and further education, it amounts to a cut of £200m for the universities, which is 5 per cent of their teaching budget.

All of which will give ammunition to those vice-chancellors who would like the cap to be taken off the £3,145 a year tuition fee. When you consider that it costs at least twice that to educate an undergraduate at a university such as Cambridge, you appreciate the degree of the subsidy that taxpayers are having to pay. We need a debate about the wisdom – and the justice – of this.

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