Hardbacks and hard drives win some hard cash

May 21, 2004

The highlight of this year's university rankings is a large jump in spending on libraries and computers - £37 per student. John O'Leary reports

Big increases in spending on libraries, computing and other student facilities are driving changes in this year's university league tables.

Five of the 12 institutional measures published on pages 14 and 15 have new leaders since last year. But it is the £37 per student boost to expenditure on libraries and computing that catches the eye. The actual increase in 2001-02 will have been even greater because the figure in the table represents an average of three years' spending - a technique used to minimise the distortion caused by large projects.

There have been significant changes, too, in spending on other student facilities - notably on sport. Although the £181 per student median for all universities is up only £3 on last year, a spectacular increase at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, is largely responsible for its promotion to top new university in the aggregated table published in The Times on Monday.

A smaller, but still substantial, increase in spending on facilities kept Oxford University on top of the aggregated table. Whereas Cambridge University, which accounts for most of the spending on sport and recreation in college budgets, averaged £135 per student in the three years ending in 2001-02, the figure at the more centralised Oxford system was £369. The difference extended Oxford's lead, while another big increase at Imperial College London enabled it to narrow the gap with Cambridge.

Critics of the tables will question whether spending on facilities should exert such influence, but the increases demonstrate the importance that universities attach to enhancing the student experience. With the aggregated table's two most heavily weighted indicators (teaching and research) unchanged since last year, the impact of other factors is magnified. But as influences on student choice, the two spending measures are far from irrelevant.

Loughborough University, for example, has long benefited from its sports facilities, which have again been improved recently. But its position in the top ten of the aggregated table owes more to its successes in teaching quality assessments than any spending programme.

Similarly, UWIC, which tops the table for facilities spending, already did well enough on a range of other measures to feature among last year's leading new universities. The £460 per student invested in areas such as the National Indoor Athletics Centre helped the institute to the top of its peer group, but there were improvements, too, in graduate employment and library spending.

One indicator on which most universities registered a higher score this year was in the proportion of students awarded first and upper-second class degrees. National statistics have already demonstrated the extent of grade inflation over the years, but today's table underlines the point. Although 16 universities and three higher education colleges awarded fewer firsts and 2:1s in 2001-02 than in the previous year, more than 80 universities and the remaining seven colleges all recorded increases. And while only the University of East London and Harper Adams University College saw the proportion drop by as much as three percentage points, 30 universities had rises of three or more points. In a dozen cases, the increase was more than five points; at Glamorgan University and the University of Central Lancashire, it was more than ten points; and at University College Northampton more than 13 points. Of the bottom ten in last year's table, almost half increased the proportion of firsts and 2:1s by at least five percentage points.

Entry standards are virtually unchanged nationally in the latest table, although there is some movement at institutional level. Oxford takes over from Cambridge to top the ranking, but the rest of the top ten is unchanged.

Graduate employment, however, has dipped since last year. The median for all universities is down from 73.8 per cent to 71.2 per cent of those completing first degrees finding graduate-level work or going on to further study within six months. Although Cambridge remains top, with virtually nine out of ten graduates reporting "positive destinations", the number of institutions where the proportion reached eight out of ten is down from 21 last year to a dozen.

The employment statistics are unsatisfactory for the brief period in which graduates are expected to find a suitable job, but they remain the only national survey of destinations. The figures relate to those graduating in 2002 and, if recent surveys are accurate, may show a further decline next year.

Flux in the graduate employment market is also reflected in the success rates for different subjects. An improved record takes American studies clear of the bottom places in the subject table, but unemployment rates have risen in a number of other subjects. Art and design, where graduates have always taken time to settle into full-time jobs, props up this year's ranking, but Italian is one of several languages in which graduates faced a struggle. The top of the ranking has a familiar look, with dentistry and medicine enjoying virtually full employment and nursing close behind. Like nine of the 12 institutional measures, the 62 subject tables starting on these pages appear in full in The Times Good University Guide . Cambridge is top in subjects, Oxford in six, with universities rated on a combination of teaching quality scores, research assessment grades, the entry qualifications of first-year undergraduates and the first destinations of graduates.

The institutional measures include three compiled exclusively for The Times Higher . Thames Valley University continues to be the university with the highest proportion of staff whose main function is both teaching and research, while Bolton Institute (soon to become a university) takes over as the institution with the largest proportion of permanent staff.

Imperial, which was third last year, has by far the largest income from research grants and contracts. Of the remaining institutional measures, University College London continues to have the most generous staff-to-student ratio. Imperial is the only other institution with fewer than ten students per academic. Cambridge again tops four of the institutional rankings and Oxford two.

University league tables 2004
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