The clearest way of assessing universities in the digital age may be found in cyberspace, according to an academic who has conducted a survey of web sites.
Martin Dodge, researcher in the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College, London, has drawn up a list of the top 20 universities in terms of the number of web pages they have, related to the number of students.
He suggests this figure indicates how forward-looking they are and is closely linked to their research ranking. Of the 20 institutions on his list, 14 are also ranked in the top 20 for research assessment exercise scores.
"The web is not only a medium for publishing information which attracts future students and for developing online teaching resources," he said. "It is a window on the world for illustrating a variety of research, for telling the world that the research that is being done is at the cutting edge. In this sense, it marks a general commitment to the future."
Using the search engine HotBot, Dodge found a total of more than 1.3 million web pages ending in ac.uk, the designated internet domain for UK academia.
He then identified the number of pages linked to each university on July 8 this year and worked out the ratio of pages to the total number of students, based on full-time equivalents for 1995-96.
By far the largest web presence belongs to Imperial College, which has more than 95,000 pages of information and nearly 12 web pages per student.
Second is the University of Cambridge, with 68,000 pages but a ratio of only 4.3. No new university makes it into the top 20.
Mr Dodge has also looked at computer spending per student, which appears to be closely related to institutions' research profile.
He has worked out research ratings by multiplying the number of research-active staff each institution submitted in the last RAE by the grade awarded and then dividing by the total number of staff to find an average.
Research ranking is taken from this year's THES league tables.
Mr Dodge said: "It is a bit of fun in one respect because the volume of web pages is no measure of quality. But there is a need for looking at new measures of performance and publishing and presenting research through the web is becoming increasingly important."
Top 20 (number of web pages)
Imperial; Cambridge; Lancaster; St Andrews; Southampton; Oxford; Edinburgh; Heriot-Watt; Royal Holloway; UCL; Essex; Cardiff; Glasgow; Leeds; York; QMW; Bath; Sheffield; Bristol; Bradford.