Asian challenge mounts to US-UK university supremacy

British and American continue to dominate the top spots in the Time Higher Education (THE) rankings of more than 1,300 universities across the world, although they are facing mounting competition from Asian institutions.

Radcliffe Camera, the science library, at Oxford University
For the fourth year running, Oxford University occupies first place in the annual rankings although its long-time rival Cambridge has been edged from last year's No 2 into third place by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).THE's World University Rankings uses 13 performance indicators to judge institutions' excellence in teaching, research, income and international outlook.Seven of the top 10 are US universities and three are British. Indeed, the only country outside the UK and North America to earn a place in the top 20 is ETH Zurich in joint 13th place.Regionally, Europe has the most top-ranking universities in the top 200, accounting for just under half, while the United States is the country with most institutions in the top 200, notching up a total of 60.

Asian univerities to play a role in elite higher education 

But in the table of all institutions, China has grown to be the fourth most represented nation in the world, while Japan has consolidated its position as the second most represented, claiming 103 places and extending the lead it gained over the UK in last year's table.Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at THE, said: "It has long been clear that the emerging countries of Asia are going to play an increasingly powerful role among the global elite of higher education."Future editions of the World University Rankings will most likely reveal intense competition, and while European and American institutions face significant hurdles, Chinese and other Asian universities have challenges of their own they must meet."These include ensuring that the excellent academics they produce do not move abroad to more established institutions in Europe and North America; promoting a culture of scholarly creativity and freedom; [and] boosting ties with nations across the globe."Mr Baty added that, historically, UK universities had punched well above their weight and remained home to a "huge number" of top quality institutions.
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UK universities: ranking suffering due to Brexit

However, he added: "In recent years, increasingly strong competition from Asian institutions has begun to squeeze the UK out of its traditional top spots. Last year, the UK was displaced as the second most-represented country overall by Japan and the Asian nation further extends its lead this year."Meanwhile, the majority of UK universities in the top 200 have declined - although the country is still home to the best university in the world, the University of Oxford."British universities have long been able to attract the most talented academics and students from across the world, but there are signs that this is becoming more difficult ahead of Brexit."If the UK starts to withdraw from the international stage, its position in the upper echelons of the rankings will suffer."

European universities: status threatened by economic stagnation and increasingly isolationist political tendencies 

Ellie Bothwell, THE's rankings editor, said that while Europe continued to perform "extremely well" and attract academics from around the world, there could be challenges ahead."Europe must overcome serious hurdles if it is to maintain its strong position in future global rankings. Economic stagnation and increasingly isolationist political tendencies both threaten the positions of European institutions at a time when international cooperation and investment is key," she said.

Why is Oxford University at the top of the THE list?

Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, said: "While UK universities face great uncertainty around Brexit and funding, these results demonstrate that we are well prepared to meet these challenges."Oxford's success is in large part due to our research collaborations with other excellent universities around the world and we remain determined both to deepen and to expand these partnerships, whatever Brexit brings."

Top 10 THE World University Rankings

  1. Oxford
  2. California Institute of Technology
  3. Cambridge
  4. Stanford
  5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  6. Princeton
  7. Harvard
  8. Yale
  9. Chicago
  10. Imperial College London

For more news and views on education and Brexit, visit our dedicated Education and Brexit sections. 

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