There are some unexpected changes in this year's league tables, notably in teaching quality and graduate jobs, says John O'Leary. Still, the old guard remains dominant on several measures as students reach ever loftier heights in AS and A levels
Almost half of the institutional league tables published in The Times Higher have new leaders this year, but Cambridge still dominates five of the 12 rankings.
As well as taking over from Oxford as the university with the highest entry standards, Cambridge maintains its lead in graduate destinations, completion rates and the proportion of students awarded firsts and 2:1s.
Its leadership in the research category cannot be challenged until new grades emerge from the 2008 research assessment exercise.
Perhaps the most unexpected change comes in the teaching quality table, where Dundee University jumps eight places to take over at the top after the incorporation of newer subject reviews in Scotland. The results have left Scottish universities filling more than half of the top 15 places.
The reviews date from 2001 and 2002, when the full round of teaching quality assessments in England had come to an end. Only York University, last year's leader, prevents a clean sweep of the top four places by Scottish institutions.
Dundee was second only to St Andrews under the original assessments carried out in Scotland. Six of its subjects were reviewed under the new system - all successfully - and an institutional audit published last November found a growing emphasis on the quality of teaching.
Another notable change in the tables included in The Times Good University Guide 2006 comes in the measurement of entry standards, where the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tariff is used for the first time. Previous versions of this ranking have been based entirely on A and AS-level grades.
The new figures underline the high level of qualifications among entrants to the leading universities. Cambridge's average of 510 points per student equates to four As at A level and a D at AS level. All the top ten universities averaged more than 400 points per student - the equivalent of three As at A level and a C at AS level.
Further down the table, however, the inclusion of vocational qualifications has not made a significant difference to the order. Of the new universities, only Robert Gordon features in the top 50, although Bournemouth is only just outside it. The third change in methodology comes in graduate destinations, where a classification of jobs published last year by Peter Elias of Warwick University and Kate Purcell of the University of the West of England has been adopted. The table already distinguished between graduate and non-graduate employment, but the new classification has updated and refined the process to take greater account of the use of graduate skills.
The switch means that the employment figures overleaf are not directly comparable with last year's, but many of the same names appear at the top of the ranking. More than 80 per cent of those completing degrees at Cambridge and Bradford University were in graduate jobs or continuing their studies six months later.
Other changes of leadership come in the tables compiled specifically for The Times Higher . The University of Wales Newport is the only institution where every member of the academic staff has a contract for both teaching and research, while University College Chichester has the highest proportion of permanent staff among its academics.
Chichester is one of ten university colleges included in the tables. The Southampton Institute was given the same status after the statistics were collected, but will be included next year, when it will be one of six new universities.
The other tables show only limited change. Spending on libraries and computing is similar to last year, while there has been some increase in spending on other facilities, with Imperial College London taking over at the top. Both measures use a three-year rolling average. Completion rates also show slight improvement, although four universities still have more than 30 per cent of undergraduates projected to leave without a qualification. But the inflation in upper-second and first-class degrees appears to have slowed. The proportion of top degrees reached 90 per cent for the first time at Cambridge, but most universities saw only a small increase.
The Times Good University Guide 2006 , which includes an aggregated league table, is available from Times Books First, at £12.79 plus post and packing. Tel: 0870 1608080.
- 2005 university league tables click here