Chinese universities hit new heights in global ranking

United Kingdom universities have taken the top two places in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the first time in its 14-year history, with the University of Oxford holding onto top spot and the University of Cambridge jumping from fourth to second.

Overall, the United States continues to dominate the rankings with twice as many universities in the top 200 (62) as the UK (31). Germany (20), the Netherlands (13) and Australia (eight) are also well represented in the top 200 universities.

But it is the ascendancy of Chinese universities that continues to catch the eye, with two in the top 30 for the first time. China’s lower-ranked universities have also made big gains.

Almost all Chinese universities have improved their standing, signalling that the country’s commitment to investment in universities has bolstered results year-on-year, according to Times Higher Education or THE.

Phil Baty, THE’s editorial director, global rankings, said: “The rise of China in this year’s table is remarkable and demonstrates the way the global higher education landscape is changing. With two top-30 representatives, China’s leading universities are truly now part of the global elite and overtaking prestigious universities in the US, UK and Europe.

“But the results show that other East Asian nations are feeling the competition from this Asian giant. South Korea, which has been improving in recent years, is one of many victims of China’s success this year. Japan’s UTokyo [University of Tokyo] has also suffered. East Asian countries outside of China will need to work hard to stay stable as its neighbour soars to join the global elite.”

Tough year for the US

Among US universities, the notable improvements included the University of Pennsylvania moving up three places to tie 10th and Johns Hopkins University jumping four places to 13th.

The biggest casualty from last year’s top 10 was the University of California, Berkeley – which last year announced a US$150 million deficit following declining state funding and a five-year freeze on undergraduate tuition fees. It dropped eight places, from 10th to 18th.

Two-fifths of the US institutions in the top 200 (29 out of 62) have dropped places and around the same number have faced reductions in their research income since last year, THE noted, and future levels of federal research income under the Trump administration are in doubt.

In contrast, five of China’s seven top-200 representatives saw a boost in their research income, meaning that some leading US universities have now been overtaken by Asian institutions.

The National University of Singapore has overtaken Carnegie Mellon University, Tsinghua University now ranks above the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology performs better than the University of California, Santa Barbara. Meanwhile, Peking University is now on a par with New York University.

In addition, there are signs that US universities are already starting to feel the effects of anti-immigration policies in the country, with international students less likely to apply to US universities and less likely to accept offers from them post-application, THE suggested.

Baty said: “The US has seen its dominance of global rankings wane further this year as it loses out to institutions in the UK and Asia. For the first time this year US universities do not hold either of the top two spots of the ranking – a real blow to the country’s higher education sector.

“Meanwhile, funding concerns for America’s public universities, uncertainty around future levels of research income, anti-immigration policies and the continued rise of Asia mean that the US’s position may decline further in future years.”

US universities’ future levels of research income under the Trump administration are in question, with funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Institutes of Health among those targeted for cuts or abolition, THE noted.

Meanwhile, a survey found almost half of US universities reporting a decline in international students accepting undergraduate offers in the wake of the country’s anti-immigration policies, which may further put pressure on US institutional finances.

Canada has fared better overall than the US, generally maintaining a steady performance in the table, with the notable exception of McMaster University, which leapt 35 places from 113th to 78th.

Brexit risks

Europe has maintained a strong performance despite the increasing competition from Asia, led by Oxford and Cambridge, which registered significant increases in their total institutional income, up 24% and 11% respectively, while both the California Institute of Technology (down 23%) and Stanford University (down 24%) saw significant revenue falls in the reporting period and came joint third. Cambridge also saw improvements in its research quality, THE noted.

However, the results underline the risk Brexit may pose to the global performance of the UK’s leading universities.

Almost a quarter of the research funding from competitive grants to the University of Cambridge comes from the European Union, while the proportion at the University of Oxford is about a fifth, THE said.

In addition, there are signs that UK universities are already starting to suffer from the Brexit vote, THE noted. The number of EU applicants looking to study on full-time undergraduate courses in the UK has declined by 5% since last year.

The findings also suggest a widening gulf between the UK’s super elite institutions and other universities. While leading institutions Oxford and Cambridge and certain London-based institutions have remained steady – Imperial College London remains at eighth, University College London is down just one place at 16th, and the London School of Economics and Political Science remains at 25th, for example – several of the lower-ranked universities have declined.

The University of Warwick has dropped nine places to 91st and the University of St Andrews plummeted 33 places to joint 143rd, for example. Overall, just over half of the UK’s top-200 representatives (16 out of 31) have dropped places.

Europe holding up

This is the first time that two European institutions have taken the top two spots and Switzerland’s ETH Zurich – the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich – also clings onto a spot in the top 10, after dropping one place from ninth to joint 10th.

Ireland’s Trinity College Dublin has jumped 14 places to 117th.

Italy and Spain both have new number ones thanks to large rises for two of their institutions: Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna (=155th, up from =190th) and Pompeu Fabra University (140th, up from 175th).

But the rise of Asia is becoming an increasing threat to Europe’s standing in the rankings, just as it is with US universities’ standing.

China’s top two now outrank Germany’s top institution LMU Munich (=34th). Germany also has two fewer institutions in the top 200; of the 20 institutions that still make this cohort, 12 have slipped.

Tsinghua University (up from 35th to 30th) has also overtaken Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (down from =30th to =38th), and Peking University (up two places to =27) now outranks the Karolinska Institute (down 10 places to =38) and is on a par with the University of Edinburgh (=27).

Europe now has seven institutions in the top 30 while Asia has three. Last year these figures were 10 and two respectively.

Australia’s mixed results

Australia’s top eight universities had mixed results. The University of Melbourne moved up one place to 32nd, Australian National University was down one at 48th, the University of Sydney dropped one to 61st, the University of Queensland dropped five to 65th, Monash University dropped six to =80th, the University of New South Wales dropped seven to 85th, the University of Western Australia jumped 14 places to 111th, and the University of Adelaide rose eight places to =134.

Latin America suffers

Latin America has suffered in this year’s ranking amid increasing global competition. Its leading higher education nation, Brazil, has only 21 institutions, down from 27 last year, despite an expansion of the table. Latin American universities are suffering from funding issues and excessive red tape and there are signs that this is fuelling a brain drain of scholars from the region.

Among Latin American countries, Brazil’s University of São Paulo achieved the best place, in the 251-300 band.

While Chile and Colombia have both increased their number of included universities to take 13 and five of the top 1,000 places respectively, three of Chile’s and two of Colombia’s leading universities have dropped a band.

Mexico’s share of the world’s top universities has also declined; it claims three places, down from seven last year. The country’s top two universities, Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education and the National Autonomous University of Mexico, have also both fallen out of the top 600.

The calculation of the THE World University Rankings 2018 – which lists the top 1,000 universities in 77 countries – has been subject to an independent audit by professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, which, THE says, makes these the only global university rankings to be subjected to full, independent scrutiny of this nature.