Cambridge University is worth 170 London Guildhalls or four Edinburgh Universities, according to a THES analysis. Cambridge, followed by Oxford, tops the tables for assets, endowments, reserves and liquidity thanks to some 800 years of accumulated wealth.
The THES 's league tables are compiled from balance sheets provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency that show the value of university, but not college assets. To get a clearer picture of Oxford and Cambridge's wealth, the universities have supplied rough estimates of college assets. These are principally based on the value of endowments, with buildings excluded. This means estimates are likely to be conservative.
Cambridge's college assets are about £1.5 billion and its university assets £1.2 billion. Oxford has college assets of £1.2 billion-£1.5 billion and university assets of about £807 million.
At the opposite end of the scale, the University of Wales, Lampeter, has net assets of under £15 million, while London Guildhall University (LGU) has net assets valued at £16 million.
League tables compiled from the balance sheets - which show only university wealth - reveal that in a higher education sector of 170 institutions, Oxford and Cambridge account for nearly 40 per cent of endowments and nearly 15 per cent of the sector's net assets, reserves and liquidity.
But an Oxford spokesperson said: "The real funding needs of the higher education sector are to do with the fact that, in general, publicly funded teaching and research loses money; endowment income and entrepreneurial activity cannot fill the gap. In addition, pay is seriously deficient."
Joanna Womack, treasurer of Cambridge, said: "You cannot judge a university by the size of its balance sheet. There are tremendous costs involved in running a large research university - to build a new supercomputer alone costs about £20 million. And Cambridge has to compete for academics in a global market."
Ten universities, Oxford and Cambridge plus a small group some way behind, account for more than a third of the universities' assets, reserves and liquidity. Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, King's, Imperial, Bristol, UCL, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, the Open University, City, Cardiff, Wolverhampton, the University of the West of England and Surrey appear in the top tens on five measures.
Surrey has managed to generate a great deal of surplus in a short time, placing it in the big league. In response to government cuts in the 1980s, it created the Surrey Research Park out of its Appeals and Foundation Fund. This has proved phenomenally successful.
UWE has made its mark because it has been able to increase student numbers over the past few years and put money aside for a £90 million capital programme. Wolverhampton has built up reserves to fund teaching and research facilities.
Old universities dominate the top half of the league tables, but on the table for how many days an institution could survive if its funding were cut, Oxford and Cambridge are demoted to ninth and seventh respectively. City, Keele and Robert Gordon top this table.
Nicholas Maude, finance director of LGU, said: "We have limited property and capital reserves. We did not inherit a vast estate from the local authority when we became a university in 1992. When you look at reserves as a proportion of income, although the situation needs improving, we are in line with other London universities. We are a teaching institution and the infrastructure is underfunded."
How Cambridge assets compare <P style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px"> J. Sainsbury plc £4.8 billion
The Church of England £4.3 billion
Pearson £4.2 billion
GlaxoSmithKline £1.6 billion
Cambridge (inc. colleges) £2.7 billion
Psion £330 million
Huntingdon Life Sciences £42 million
The Queen's personal wealth £300 million
United States universities measure their wealth by their endowments. Harvard's total some £13.3 billion, followed by Yale and the University of Texas system at £7 billion each, and Stanford and Princeton universities at £6 billion apiece.
Sources: Sainsbury, Church Commissioners, Pearson, GlaxoSmithKline, Higher Education Statistics Agency, The Sunday Times , Psion, Huntingdon Life Sciences