In Depth

Why are UK universities falling in the global rankings?

‘Triple threat’ of Brexit, tightening budgets and unchecked expansion may be to blame

The UK’s universities have slipped down an international league table for a fourth consecutive year to record the country’s worst-ever performance.

Almost three-quarters of British universities were downgraded in the rankings, compiled by data and research group QS. Oxford University fell from fourth to fifth place, while University College London slid two places to tenth.

Imperial College London was the only UK institution in the top 20 to be promoted, rising one spot to eighth place. Cambridge University held on to the No.7 spot, and the University of Edinburgh stayed in 20th.

So why the slide?

British universities have been hit by “a triple threat of Brexit, tightening budgets and unchecked expansion”, says The Guardian

According to Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, the “crisis” has been driven by a lack of investment. 

“The ratio between staff and students is moving in the wrong direction and will continue to do so most likely,” he told The Telegraph.

“Every member of staff is dealing with more students. That risks each student getting less personal attention. This is due to the financial resources, with staff costing a lot of money.”

Ben Sowter, director of research at QS, says the funding cuts “reflect the increasing competitiveness of the global higher education landscape”.

“Concerted efforts to ensure that Britain continues to remain an attractive place for talented academics and students to study in the future, and a national desire to continue collaborating with our European and global partners on transformative research projects, would serve the British higher education sector well,” he argues.

In April, UK university vice-chancellors warned that their institutions were likely to face “financial failure” in the wake of the coronavirus crisis without emergency government funding of at least £2bn.

Sowter believes that Brexit has also been a significant factor in the decline of British universities, noting that their performance in league tables has trended “consistently downwards” since the UK voted Leave in 2016.

“Numerous sources – from Ucas to the Higher Education Policy Institute – have drawn the same connection between Brexit and lower British appeal among the global international student community,” he said.

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Still, rankings themselves should be taken with a grain of salt, says The Australian newspaper’s higher education editor Tim Dodd.

“Students, and their parents… should note that gaming the rankings has become a speciality in itself and universities spend a lot of time and effort trying to do that,” Dodd says.

“In other words, a ranking tells you little more than how successful a university has been in playing the rankings game.”

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UK university rankings in the latest QS table

Oxford - 5th (4th last year)Cambridge - 7th (7th)Imperial College London - 8th (9th)University College London - 10th (8th)Edinburgh - 20th (20th)Manchester - 27th (27th)King’s College London - 31st (33rd)London School of Economics - 49th (44th)University of Bristol - 58th (49th)University of Warwick - 62nd (62nd)

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