Oxford has been named the world’s best university for the fifth year in a row – but China is the real winner in today’s global rankings.
And while U.S. universities strengthen their grip on the global top 10, this masks a long-term decline among mid-rank institutions, which are fast losing their advantage over their counterparts, particularly in Asia.
Today’s World University Rankings show that Oxford has held onto the top spot for the fifth year running, threatening to turn one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the higher education calendar into a procession.
Oxford also has the satisfaction of seeing Cambridge slip to 6th, its lowest position since 2014.
But these two rivals are the only non-American institutions in the top 10, as the U.S. claims a record eight of the best 10 universities, according to Times Higher Education, who put together one of three most widely-viewed university rankings.
(One of the others, the QS rankings, have Massachusetts Institute of Technology at #1, although the U.S. has only five of the top 10 spots, while the Academic Ranking of World Universities has Harvard at #1, with the U.S. taking eight of the top 10).
The full top 10 in the Times Higher Education version (with last year’s position in brackets) is:
- 1 (1) Oxford University (U.K.)
- 2 (4) Stanford University (U.S.)
- 3 (7) Harvard University (U.S.)
- 4 (2) California Institute of Technology (U.S.)
- 5 (5) Massachusetts Institute of Technology (U.S.)
- 6 (3) Cambridge University (U.K.)
- 7 (13) University of California, Berkeley (U.S.)
- 8 (8) Yale University (U.S.)
- 9 (6) Princeton University (U.S.)
- 10 (9) University of Chicago (U.S.)
THE World University Rankings 2021
But the strong showing of elite U.K. and U.S. universities hides a long-term trend, which is the rise of Asia, and particularly China, at the expense of the traditional giants of higher education.
At the top of the rankings, China’s Tsinghua University becomes the first Asian institution to break into the top 20, coming in at joint 20th.
But the real rumblings are further down the rankings, with China doubling its representation in the top 100, from three last year to six this year, and now seven in the top 200, compared with just two in 2016.
Over the same period, the U.S. has lost four positions in the top 200, and for the first time, the citation score – one of five metrics used to compile the rankings – for middle-ranked Chinese and U.S. universities has started to converge.
The U.K. is in a similar position, with only five of its top 20 universities improving their position on last year, and signs of decline outside the top 200.
This appears to be part of a region-wide shift in the balance of power, with Asia claiming 16 places in the top 100, its highest total since the rankings began, with 13 of those either improving or maintaining their position from last year.
And there are good reasons to think this trend may be exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19. While the full effect on higher education may take years to become apparent, one likely fall-out is a decrease in the number of international students.
China has long been the biggest source of international students at both U.S. and U.K. institutions, but if more stay at home this will impact not only on finances but also on the movement of talent.
Simply put, if more Chinese students stay at home, this is likely to benefit China’s universities to the detriment of their counterparts in the U.S. and U.K.
‘For several years we have been observing a slow shift in global higher education as Asian universities have climbed at the expense of their western counterparts,’ said Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at THE.
‘This trend is likely to accelerate further as the coronavirus pandemic heralds a perfect storm of huge challenges for primarily western universities, particularly those in the U.K. who, along with the U.S., face the very real risk of losing significant international student talent, and the huge amount of income that they bring.
‘While the universities at the very top of the table…will prove hard to unseat, these factors, combined with the effects of a possible deep and long-lasting global recession and its likely impact on university funding levels, could herald the start a dramatic re-balancing of the global knowledge economy.’