US, Asia rise as Europe falters in university ranking

United States universities took 11 of the top 20 places in the latest edition of the QS World University Rankings published last week, and held all top three places for the first time since 2004-5.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT came top for the fifth year running. Stanford and Harvard universities came second and third, and 26 of the US’s 32 universities in the top 100 either held their position or moved up, further cementing US domination.

In the top 20, the UK took five places, and Switzerland and Singapore took two places each, but no university moved more than two places.

The US dominated the top 200 with 48 institutions, followed by the UK (30), Netherlands (12), Germany (11), Canada and Australia (9), Japan (8), China (7), France, Sweden and Hong Kong (5).

European downturn

But the wider story of the ranking was the downturn in performance by Western European institutions, while Asian universities continued to rise and US universities strengthened their dominant position.

UK universities in particular took a tumble – with 14 of the 18 UK universities in the top 100 dropping places – and so too did leading universities in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy.

A notable exception was Switzerland, with four out of eight universities in the ranking moving up and ETH Zurich taking eighth spot.

Elsewhere, four of Australia’s top five institutions also lost ground.

By contrast nine of China’s top 13 universities moved up the ranking, four of them by at least 10 places. And although China still has only four universities in the top 100, Tsinghua University achieved its best position yet, at 24th.

Six of Hong Kong’s seven universities moved up this year and three were in the top 50.

Eleven of Japan’s 17 universities in the top 500 improved their positions, two of them (Hiroshima University and Tokyo Medical and Dental University) by more than 50 places and one (Yokahama City University) by more than 100.

Twelve of South Korea’s 16 universities in the top 500 moved up and one was a new entry.

And Singapore maintained its position as the top-performing Asian country, with National University of Singapore at 12th and Nanyang Technological University at 13th.

Russia failed in its ambition to break into the top 100, but nevertheless moved forward with 11 top 500 universities compared to nine last year, and five of them rising 80 or more places – Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (350), Tomsk State University (377), National Research Tomsk Polytechnic University (400), National Research Nuclear University (401-410) and National Research University Higher School of Economics (411-420).

Two others moved up 47 places (Moscow State Institute of International Relations, 350) and 50 places (Peter the Great Saint-Petersburg Polytechnic University, 411-420).

Africa struggles

African universities have again struggled to make an impact with just nine in the top 700 and eight of those moving down. Among the three top-ranking African universities, University of Cape Town moved down 20 places, University of the Witwatersrand dropped 28 and American University in Cairo dropped 20. The only bright light was Stellenbosch University, which edged into the top 400 at 395.

Latin America also struggled but achieved a top 100 university for the first time since 2006 with Universidad de Buenos Aires ranked 85th, and Universidade de São Paulo also achieving its highest position (120th).

Spending squeeze

According to QS, the trends reflected the squeeze on public research spending in some parts of the world.

Ben Sowter, head of research at QS, said: “Institutions in countries providing high levels of targeted funding, whether from endowments or the public purse, rise. Conversely, Western European nations making or proposing cuts to public research spending lose ground to their US and Asian counterparts.”

UK universities in particular might be suffering from uncertainty over research funding and the impact of tougher immigration rules on their ability to hire and retain top young talent internationally, he said.

More than three-quarters of the UK’s top 400 universities have suffered a drop in both academic reputation and employer reputation, while 58% have seen a fall in the number of foreign academic staff.

The UK’s performance was not affected by the EU referendum vote because the surveys for the ranking were carried out before the Brexit poll.

Some 916 universities from 81 countries were ranked this year. The first 400 were ranked individually, while those between 401st and 500th were grouped in bands of 10 institutions and those between 501st and 700th were banded in groups of 50. Those beyond 700th were merely listed alphabetically due to insufficient data to reliably rank them.

Some 74,651 academics and 37,781 employers contributed to the rankings through the QS global surveys, which QS says are the largest of their kind. QS analysed 10.3 million research papers and 66.3 million citations, indexed by Elsevier's Scopus database.