The top university has changed in more than a third of the subjects ranked in today's Times Good University Guide, in a shake-up that stretches right across the academic spectrum. The 62 subject tables, which are available in full at timesonline.co.uk/gug, show more movement than usual at all levels. But it seems that nothing can shake the domination of Oxford and particularly Cambridge, whatever the discipline.
Only a dozen universities outside Oxbridge head any of the 62 tables - and most of those are for subjects that are not offered by the two ancient rivals. Cambridge alone is ranked first in 35 subjects.
But that does not mean that the top two have maintained cosy superiority in their various academic fiefdoms. Cambridge has actually lost the leadership of five subjects, while taking over top position in three. Oxford leads in nine subjects, including some of the most prestigious, such as medicine and economics.
Of the remaining universities, Loughborough boasts the most top places, heading the new ranking for sports science, as well as those for building and librarianship and information science. Bath, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Warwick all have two top finishes.
Outside Oxford and Cambridge, Sheffield appears in the top ten for the largest number of subjects, achieving that feat in 27 different areas. But it is for the individual performances that the subject tables are most valuable to applicants - particularly where a department does much better (or worse) than the university as a whole. In architecture, for example, Bath outshines Cambridge, Edinburgh and University College London, all of which are well ahead of it in the main ranking of universities. Glasgow does the same in dentistry and Liverpool in veterinary medicine.
The tables on this page give a flavour of what is available online and in the paperback version of the guide, published by HarperCollins this week. They include the upper reaches of the rankings for some of the most popular and competitive subjects: law is the most popular of all, while medicine and English are in the top ten and the other subjects are all in or around the top 20 in terms of total applications.
Sports science has been separated from the other subjects in the category of hospitality, leisure and tourism this year in recognition of the strong demand for places in this area. Loughborough justifies its pre-eminent position in university sport with first place in the inaugural ranking. Sports science is also an example of a field in which a graduate's employment prospects may be influenced as much by a university's position in a subject table as by its overall ranking. Most graduate jobs are open to applicants from any subject and prospective employers will be more aware of institutional positions than the detail of different subject rankings, but this may not apply to vocational degrees (including medicine and law).
Many would argue that the subject tables are more important than any comparison of whole universities, in any case, because they concern the course that will occupy so much of an undergraduate's time. But they carry particular weight in subjects where graduates will be expected to put the knowledge gained on their course directly into practice. Employers in agriculture, for example, will be well aware of Reading's reputation and much more interested in its top place in the subject than its 31st place in the main league table.
The unusual degree of fluctuation in the subject tables can be attributed mainly to the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, which allowed research scores to be updated for the first time in seven years. With less data available for the subject tables, research accounts for a quarter of the scores - 50 per cent more than in the main table. And the treatment of research grades is also different: no estimate can be made at subject level of the proportion of eligible academics entered for the latest RAE, so research scores in the subject tables are not weighted by staff numbers.
However, the equal influence of student satisfaction, entry grades and graduate employment prospects has ensured that there are few anomalies in the new tables.
As in all the tables in The Times Good University Guide, it pays to look beyond the top universities, which may have so many applications that even many of the best-qualified candidates are rejected.
For those still undecided about which subject to study, there are tables in the paperback version of the guide that show average employment rates and starting salaries across the range of subjects. Health-related subjects fill the top positions in the employment table, with dentists leading the way. Medics are the top earners, with salaries averaging almost £29,000 six months after graduation. Timesonline.co.uk