UK takes top spot from US but slides in global ranking

The University of Oxford has become the first United Kingdom university and first institution outside the United States to top the Times Higher Education World University Rankings in the 13-year history of the table. It has pushed five-times champion, the California Institute of Technology, into second place.

The US remains dominant, however, with 148 institutions in the top 980, and with 20 of its 31 universities in the top 200 rising and another 10 holding their place, following dips in their THE rankings progress in the past couple of years.

And Asia continues its rise, with two new entries in the top 100, and another four joining the top 200, from Hong Kong, South Korea and China. China now has two top 40 universities and the leading Asian institution, the National University of Singapore, moves up to 24th, its highest position to date.

However, the table makes grim reading for the UK overall, since among its 32 institutions in the top 200, 23 have moved down, 12 of them dropping 10 places or more and one, Royal Holloway, University of London, falling 44 places. Only five moved up and four held their places, including the University of Cambridge at fourth and Imperial College London at eighth.

This echoes the finding of the QS World University Rankings published two weeks ago, which saw UK universities take a tumble, with 14 of the 18 UK universities in the top 100 dropping places.

Phil Baty, editor of the THE World University Rankings, suggested that worse is yet to come for the UK.

“The UK’s vote to leave the European Union in June is also a big threat to the country’s higher education sector, especially given that some of the country’s universities are already slipping out of the top 100, before the full effects of Brexit have begun.”

The broader picture showing the THE ranking of European institutions increasingly under threat from the continuing ascent of Asian institutions also echoed the finding of the latest QS ranking.

Mixed fortunes for Europe

This year’s THE World University Rankings presents mixed outcomes for Europe.

Switzerland’s ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich – has cemented its position in the top 10, landing at ninth for the second year in a row; last year the institution became the first non-Anglo-American institution to make the world rankings' top 10 for a decade.

Germany performed well in the table with 41 institutions overall, 22 of which made the top 200 and nine in the top 100.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands’ 13 leading research-intensive universities have all made the top 200, the first time they have all made this elite group.

But other European countries, like the UK, have lost ground.

A third of France’s 27 universities moved down the table, while half of Italy’s 39 institutions have slipped. France, Spain and Italy have each lost a top 200 representative.

Central and Eastern Europe have also suffered with just one university in the Czech Republic making the top 600, down from six last year, while three of Romania’s four universities dropped to a lower band.

“The traditionally well-funded universities in Denmark and Finland are also already seeing signs of deterioration following large budget cuts in the past year. The universities of Copenhagen and Helsinki dropped 38 and 15 places respectively,” Baty said.

“And some European university leaders have already expressed concerns over building collaborations with top UK researchers, following the UK’s vote to leave the EU in June.”

China’s notable rise

By contrast Asia’s rise in the rankings is real and growing, most notably the rise of China’s leading universities – Peking University (29th) and Tsinghua University (35th) – which now not only make the top 40 but have risen 13 and 12 places respectively, by far the biggest risers in the top 50.

“Five of Hong Kong’s six representatives make the top 200 – more than any other Asian region – while South Korea has also made great strides. And the National University of Singapore, Asia’s top university, is at 24th – its highest ever rank,” Baty said. “Europe’s success in the ranking cannot be guaranteed in the long-term while more of Asia’s leading universities soar to join the world elite.”

Canada slipped out of the top 20, with the University of Toronto dropping from 19th to 22nd.

Australia’s top eight had mixed fortunes with three moving up, two staying the same and three moving down.

Africa’s elite institutions fared poorly, dropping from five to four institutions in the top 500 – the University of KwaZulu-Natal slipped out of the top 500 – and Stellenbosch University falling at least 50 places from the 301-350 band to the 402-500 band. Africa’s leading institution, the University of Cape Town also fell 28 places, from 120th to 148th.

Brexit warning

While there was some comfort for the UK in achieving 88 of the top 800 compared to 78 last year, Baty warned that Brexit is likely have an impact in the years ahead.

He said the UK referendum result is already causing uncertainty for the sector. As well as some top academics reporting they have been frozen out of collaborative research projects with EU colleagues, many are admitting that they might look to relocate to a university outside the country; a THE survey conducted before the referendum found that 40% of university staff said they would be more likely to leave the country in the event of a Brexit.

“It is also having an impact on the UK’s potential to attract international talent in the future; more than two-fifths of prospective overseas students said they were less likely to go to a UK university due to the referendum result, according to a survey by Hobsons,” Baty said.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, said: “In order to maintain our global position, we need a new approach to immigration and visas for international students and staff. We must also focus efforts on promoting the UK’s world-class higher education sector across the globe. This is more important than ever as the UK looks to enhance its place in the world post-Brexit.”

The calculation of the THE World University Rankings has been subject to an independent audit by professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, which, THE argues, makes these the first global university rankings to be subjected to full, independent scrutiny of this nature.