Oxford becomes first UK university to top global league

Caltech knocked off perch and Asian institutions on the rise
Oxford university has been helped by rising research income and success in attracting staff from overseas © Getty

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The University of Oxford has overcome declining public funding and uncertainty surrounding the Brexit referendum to become the first UK university to top the international league tables.

The latest Times Higher Education rankings show Oxford unseating the California Institute of Technology, thanks to rising research income, increasing academic influence and success in attracting staff from overseas.

Louise Richardson, Oxford’s vice-chancellor, said she was “thrilled” by the university’s success but warned that its global position would be at risk if access to European research funding was halted following the UK’s departure from the EU.

The top 10 is otherwise dominated by US universities, including Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and Princeton. The University of Cambridge came in fourth and Imperial College London placed eighth.

The ranking also shows the rising influence of Asian universities, particularly those in China, which are backed by significant government subsidies. Peking University has risen from 42nd in the table to 29th, and Tsinghua has moved from 47th to 35th. Two new Asian institutions have entered the top 100: the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

Top 10 universities of 2016 worldwide
1 (2)

University of Oxford

UK
2 (1)California Institute of TechnologyUS
3 (3)

Stanford University

US
4 (4)University of CambridgeUK
5 (5)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

US
6 (6)

Harvard University

US
7 (7)

Princeton University

US
8 (8)Imperial College LondonUK
9 (9)

ETH Zurich

Switzerland
=10 (13)

University of California, Berkeley

US
= 10 (10)

University of Chicago

US

Source: Times Higher Education. Figures in brackets represent 2015 placement;

Prof Richardson told the Financial Times that Oxford received 12 per cent of its research funding from the European Research Council “and last year that was £67m”.

“That funds a great deal of research and it was that research which led us to have this ranking.”

The vice-chancellor, who took up her post this year, is particularly concerned about retaining staff. “We worry that some of our academics who are funded by the ERC will feel that their research is in jeopardy and might be prone to move to a different university in the EU where they will feel more confident of receiving continuing funding,” she said.

Prof Richardson added that one-fifth of Oxford staff were EU nationals and that the university has had “many conversations with individuals who are considering their position” following the referendum. “We have had instances of people pull out of job searches . . . and they give their reasons as Brexit,” she said.

The UK is the largest beneficiary of EU research funds to universities, receiving a total of £1.2bn a year. If this support ends, British institutions will not only lose an important source of income but face increasing competition from other European universities benefiting from the UK’s share of the funding pot. This will compound falls in public funding for higher education.

By contrast, China is increasing its investment in higher education, spending billions of dollars each year on its top universities. Phil Baty, rankings editor at the THE, said this year’s table marked a moment when China’s spending had “really started to kick in and pay off”.

“I suspect the one thing that really feels a bit different now is that, perhaps before, [China] had quantity and less quality,” Mr Baty said. “Now we’re seeing a real switch towards quantity and quality. China’s leading universities are much more engaged globally. Tsinghua and Peking, the top two, have various partnerships and initiatives with other universities. They’re introducing American-style teaching, liberal arts-style teaching, so they’re trying to get their students to be much more critical in their thinking,” he said.

As Asian institutions have climbed the table, some British ones have dropped: this year Sheffield, St Andrews, Queen Mary and Exeter are not in the top 100. Despite this, the UK is second only to the US for the number of universities featured in the top 800.

Commenting on the results, Wendy Piatt, director-general of the UK’s elite Russell Group of universities, said that while Britain’s leading institutions continued to “punch well above their weight”, rivals were “snapping at our heels”.

“More Chinese universities appear in the top 200 than ever before, while our competitors in Germany and Japan continue to benefit from significant investment,” she said.

She added that the uncertainty created by the Brexit vote made investment in UK science, research and innovation “even more important”.

“If we want to continue our success and stave off growing competition, the UK must show that its doors are open to the very best and brightest academics and students from anywhere in the world,” she said.

The THE rankings have been running for 13 years and look at five performance indicators: teaching, research (by volume, income and reputation), the number of academic citations, international reach, and knowledge transfer to industry.

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