Leading 1960s university slumps in Guardian ranking

The University of Sussex – one of the top new universities of the 1960s and home of the influential Institute for Development Studies – has plummeted in the 2014 Guardian University Guide, published last Tuesday.

Sussex dropped from 27 to 50 in the annual rankings, a victim largely of the problems faced by its graduates in finding work in a challenging employment environment, particularly in philosophy and anthropology. Sussex was ranked at number 11 in the 2012 tables (published in 2011).

The Guardian tries to sugar the pill a little by pointing to Sussex's position at the top of the social services subject table, largely because of extremely high student satisfaction and entry standards.

As one university falls another rises – Surrey, which breaks into the Guardian’s top 10 at eighth position, up from number 12 last year and 19 in 2011.

The moves were reflected in a less extreme way in the 2014 Complete University Guide, published in April, which ranked Sussex at 31, down 10 places on last year, and Surrey at 13, up from 22.

Sussex response

Professor Clare Mackie, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Sussex, said: “A Sussex degree continues to be highly valued by employers. Those graduating this summer will find that the time they have spent here at Sussex will stand them in good stead for the future in whichever career they choose to pursue.”

Mackie pointed out that the Guardian University Guide is the only university league table that completely ignores the research standing of universities.

“We rate among the top quartile for research performance, and research-led teaching is an important part of the Sussex experience.”

She blamed the change on graduate-level employment statistics for 2011 graduates, as measured six months after graduation in January 2012.

“In that year, we had unexpectedly high levels of unemployment (at 12%) and since then the rates for 2012 graduates have recovered significantly (to 8%), which is more typical of top universities. But those data don’t feed through until next year’s tables.”

A further factor is that the data the Guardian uses considers only “graduate-level jobs” – whereas 84% of Sussex graduates are employed or in postgraduate study six months after graduation.

Mackie added that the Guardian gives a high weighting to students’ views on the “assessment and feedback” of their academic work, as measured in the 2012 National Student Survey.

“This is an area where we have already been making significant changes in response to student concerns,” Mackie said.

“The scale of changes within the Guardian tables – with a number of universities moving up and others down – suggests that these league tables in particular are very sensitive to small changes in scores year by year.”

Comparing rankings

Although the two UK league tables use similar data, their methodologies differ in detail, leading to discrepancies.

For example the Guardian ranks Britain’s first private university, the University of Buckingham, at number 25 in the UK, ahead of Kings College London or Nottingham, but the Complete University Guide places it at 57.

Both agree that Oxford Brookes University is the top-rated former polytechnic but the Guardian ranks it at 35, ahead of City University and Reading. It is ranked at 45th in the Complete University Guide.

There is a greater correlation at the top, with Cambridge and Oxford ranked first and second in both tables. Nine universities appear in both top 10s, with the Guardian including Surrey and the Complete University Guide Exeter to make up the number.

The University of Northampton climbs 39 places to 47. In the Complete University Guide it rose from 101 to 62 over the same period, largely due to improved job prospects and the entry standards of its students. And Portsmouth’s leap from 78 to 48 in the Guardian tables was not reflected in the Complete University Guide, where it rose a still-creditable nine places to 68.

The Guardian ranks 119 universities, with Buckinghamshire New University propping up the table. The Complete University Guide ranks 124.

The Times is the third key ranking and is due out later this month. Unlike its competitors, it is published behind a pay wall.

The full Guardian ranking is available here.