British best in Europe

May 8, 1998

BRITISH universities score best across Europe in a large-scale comparison of universities in 15 European countries by the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

But while they dominated the top ten in all four league tables of the best European universities in which to study law, engineering, economics and their native language and literature, they did not top any.

Britain's average score across the four subjects chosen was the highest. The Netherlands came second, followed by Germany, France, Spain and Italy.

Oxford and Cambridge were among a handful of universities to appear in the top ten in all four categories. Cambridge was the second best place to study law, second for engineering, third for English and seventh for economics.

"Thanks to their excellent achievements, the British elite universities occupy only the top places in the table," the magazine commented.

Yet the magazine claimed that the phenomenal success of Oxford and Cambridge could also be put down to the fact that they enjoy above-average funding levels. It noted that their fight with the British government over college fees remained unresolved.

Dutch universities topped two tables - the Catholic University of Tilburg for law and the Technical University of Eindhoven for engineering. Helsinki was first for language, and Lausanne, Switzerland for economics.

The survey found that British students were held to receive far more study guidance than other European students: 46 per cent of them met their tutors more than once a month compared with 38 per cent in the Netherlands, 34 per cent in Sweden and, at the bottom of the scale, just 9 per cent in Greece and 11 per cent in Austria.

Der Spiegel's authors put British success down to radical reforms beginning in the mid-1980s that tied university finance to the quality of teaching and research. It called the reforms a "brutal but in the end successful selection process". The Netherlands has also undergone radical funding reform.

The magazine used 14 opinion research institutes across Europe to compile the data, interviewing more than 1,000 professors and 7,400 students. It first selected a handful of top universities in each country by asking a sample of professors to select where they would advise their own children to study.

Ten British universities were chosen - Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, Durham, Imperial College, Southampton, Edinburgh, the London School of Economics, Warwick and York - fewer than France, Germany and Italy but more than the Netherlands, and Spain.

Teams from the 14 institutes interviewed at least 50 students per subject about 20 strengths and weaknesses of their courses at each of the 102 selected universities. Issues included quality of teaching, lecturer:student ratios, study guidance, equipment, access to journals and access to language courses.

They then asked students to rate these aspects on a scale of 1-6 from which the magazine calculated an average course score and the national scores.

Der Spiegel concluded that European universities were having to increase their student intake without a great increase in teaching personnel. It believes tuition fees, a reality in the Netherlands, Britain, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and Belgium, are inevitable.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said: "This is good news but we continue to be sceptical about league tables and the evidence used to support them."

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