Vice-chancellors were urged to take a hard look at the performance of their departments this week as the first national student satisfaction survey revealed that many "unfashionable" universities are rated the best in the country by their undergraduates.
The results turn the traditional academic hierarchy on its head.
Institutions such as the Open University, Loughborough and Leicester are at the top of the satisfaction table, well ahead of major research Russell Group universities such as Imperial College London and Leeds University.
Many new universities that pride themselves on teaching have also fared relatively badly. London Metropolitan University and the University of the Arts London are at the bottom of the table of overall satisfaction scores compiled by The Times Higher . There is a marked "London effect", with several former polytechnics in the capital scoring lower than most other universities.
Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which ran the survey with the National Union of Students, said: "When you look into the data, you will find a lot of surprises. Less fashionable institutions come out of this extremely well."
He urged institutions and department heads to start "asking some very searching questions".
While many institutions carry out their own student surveys, the National Student Survey allows universities to compare themselves with the rest of England and Wales for the first time. An unexpectedly high 60 per cent of students responded - and four fifths of them said they were happy overall.
Nonetheless, ministers are keen that institutions learn lessons from departments receiving critical feedback.
Bill Rammell, the Minister for Higher Education, said: "Over time, this will identify the institutions that are not coming up to scratch, and students will vote with their feet. It will provide the incentive for institutions to either improve or close."
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, said he was "delighted" by his institution's appearance in the top ten despite controversial department closures and the loss of 149 staff. He said: "The potential for this (survey) to be radical is considerable - it's very different from other league tables. It's inconceivable that students won't look at the data. We've already picked up issues where we haven't done so well."
Richard Taylor, director of marketing at Leicester, said: "I think this will really shake things up. There is a new hierarchy emerging from this survey, and it is not necessarily one people would have predicted."
Nancy Rothwell, acting vice-chancellor of Manchester University, said her institution already had a group looking at the survey to identify areas for improvement.
She said Russell Group universities should not dismiss the survey, but she added: "Students who go to universities like ours are more likely to be grade-A students with very high expectations. And our final-year students may have been under more pressure in the spring when they were surveyed."
Rodney Eastwood, director of policy and planning at Imperial, said: "Since our students are a questioning and demanding bunch, we would not expect uncritical feedback." He added: "It is unfortunate, too, that the survey does not include data from Oxford and Cambridge (universities) because this prevents Imperial from being compared with its peers."
Brian Roper, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, said: "My personal belief is that things are different in London. It is a commuting experience for students, and most have one or two part-time jobs. Building team spirit is very difficult."