More than half of Britain's major employers think degree standards are falling, while just a tenth think they are improving, a national study has found.
In some sectors, such as civil engineering, up to three-quarters of employers believe standards have dropped significantly or slightly. Even in business and management, where employers are the most optimistic, 43 per cent think standards have fallen.
The figures, compiled by researchers on the independently run and funded Performance Indicator Project after gathering views from graduate recruiters at 200 large companies, may reflect the view of many employers that higher education expansion has eroded quality. They also show that most employers continue to rate former polytechnics well below "old" universities.
In a league table produced with the data, even the most highly rated "new" university, Sheffield Hallam, does not make the top 20 of employers' favourites.
Manchester University was top of the table for the first time this year. But in another version of the table, which takes into account how much weight employers place on rankings and the number of graduates recruited by them, Imperial College was top, followed by Aston and Reading universities.
Although the research team has refused to name bottom-ranked institutions, eight of those in the bottom ten are "new" universities and the other two are Scottish institutions.
Cliff Pettifor, project director, said that in the nine years the project has been running there had been many changes at the top, but the same institutions continued to appear in the bottom ten.
This could be because recruiters based their judgements partly on the views of colleagues, so that once an institution gained a poor reputation it tended to stick, Dr Pettifor said.
But employers also took into account the quality of recruits, course content and dealings with university careers staff. Some "new" universities also achieved higher rankings in particular subject areas. For example, Hertfordshire University was judged 12th best for computing. Dr Pettifor said: "It is the subject-specific hierarchies that do exist that are important to recruiters."
Another survey compiled by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit has found there is no shortage of vacancies for graduates, with the number of graduate jobs advertised rising by 11 per cent in the year to October 1998.
Median graduate starting salaries also rose by nearly 9 per cent to Pounds 15,790 in the same period.
The largest rise in vacancies and salaries came from jobs abroad, with graduates offered average starting salaries of about Pounds 16,500.
Analysis of 7,000 advertised vacancies, including those placed by small and medium-sized enterprises, also revealed that the number of graduate jobs not requiring a specific degree rose by almost 30 per cent.
The biggest rise in vacancies were offered in the service sector, but manufacturing and industrial services still account for more than 40 per cent of vacancies.
Top ten for employable graduates
2. Cambridge University
4 = Oxford University
4 = Birmingham University
6. Bristol University
7. Warwick University
8. Bath University
9 = Aston University
9 = Imperial College