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The annual QS World University Rankings have once again been released, for the 13th time. Once again, European universities are losing ground as Asian universities are getting ahead; of the 74 Asian universities in the top 400, 68% have risen.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been named the world’s best for the fifth consecutive year, and Harvard has dropped down to third with Stanford stealing the second spot.

France, Portugal, Germany and Italy have all dropped down the leagues, but Britain has performed even worse. For example, Cambridge, the top university in the UK, has dropped out of the top three for the first time in a decade, whilst King’s College has dropped from 19th to 21st. Overall 38 of the 48 top-400 British universities have fallen down the ranks. However, Cambridge, Oxford, UCL and Imperial all do remain in the top 10. 

When looking at the measure of citations per faculty, the UK has fewer top-100 research institutions than China. This trend can also be seen across the rest of Europe, with universities in other parts of the world advancing quicker.

However, London is still seen as the higher education leader with continues more top 40 institutions than any other city in the world, and nearly half of its 16 featured universities rising in the rankings.

The QS World University Rankings are based on four categories: research, teaching, employability and internationalisation. The methodology consists of six indicators: academic reputation (40%), employer reputation (10%), faculty student ratio (20%), citations per faculty (20%), international students (5%), and international faculty (5%).

The effects of Brexit?

Some commentators are suggesting that the fall is due to Brexit, however most of the information collected for the rankings were collected well in advance of 23rd June, while a number of their indicators track five years’ worth of data.

However, it’s more likely that ground has been lost due to years of austerity. This year a £20m increase has been given to the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s research budget; the first since 2010, and not enough to compensate for the real-terms cuts that came after the 2010-11 academic year. 

This correlation can be seen in other countries. For example, Denmark and Sweden, two of the three countries that have exceeded the European Unions’ research and development spending targets, have improved the research performance of 12 of their 13 universities.

Leading US universities benefit from substantial private funding by means of endowments and hold  all of the QS’s top three places for the first time. 

However some effects of Brexit and the uncertainty it brings have been noted. The QS uses other indicators beyond research to develop its rankings, such as international faculty ratios and academic reputation scores. 

Brexit adversely affects the UK’s desirability as a student destination, and this year’s rankings indicate that the UK is already becoming a less attractive destination for foreign academics. More than half of the UK’s universities have seen a drop in their international faculty ratio score, and a nation’s ability to provide world-class teaching and research is, in part, contingent on its ability to attract outstanding academics and students from abroad.

If uncertainty over immigration and long-term funding issues continue, Britain could drop further from the world-class stage.

Cambridge is the top university in the UK. Image credit:

What do the other world rankings say?

The top 10 universities of the Shanghai Ranking’s Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) last year have all retained their place in the top 10 for 2016, despite some shuffling up and down.

Harvard is number one in the world for the fourteenth year running, while Stanford University also retained second place while Berkeley and University of Cambridge both climbed one place. Oxford and Cambridge are the only UK universities in the completing the top 10.

Again, Asia’s universities have risen up the ranks, with universities in China and Singapore in the top 100 for the first time. Tsinghua University in China is the country’s best university in 58th position, and the National University of Singapore is the country’s top entry at position 83.

We’ll also have to wait and see what The Times Higher Education World Rankings hold when they are released on 21st September. For the first time they will include an analysis of more than half a million books and books chapters as part of its examination of research excellence, to ensure that arts, humanities and social sciences are put on an equal footing with the hard sciences.

Tuition fees of £9,250

The fall in our world rankings has come at a time when all but three universities - University College Birmingham, the University of St Mark and St John, and Heythrop College - are not charging tuition fees of £9,250 for the 2107/18 academic year. 

Although the new fee levels will apply to all new undergraduates, some universities such as the University of Exeter has also applied the increase to continuing students.