Once regarded as bastions of academic excellence and a magnet for the world’s best talent, the reputation of Britain’s top universities is in decline. Oxford and Cambridge have fallen further behind their American rivals, according to this year’s Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings.
Harvard University tops the list, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in second place. Stanford University has taken third spot – pushing Oxford and Cambridge down to fourth and fifth respectively - in the annual list of the world’s top 100 universities.
The league table of the world’s most prestigious universities is chosen by 10,536 senior academics from 133 countries – each nominating the top institutions in their particular field of excellence.
Just 10 British universities have made this year’s list, a 20 per cent drop since 2011, when there were a dozen in the top 100. The US dominates, accounting for almost half the universities in the ranking.
The news is a “big reminder that our competitors are not standing still, they are speeding up” warned Liam Byrne, Shadow Minister for Universities, Skills and Science. “It’s bad news we’re slipping in the wrong direction and it’s bad news that across the country, great universities are heading down, not up.”
And fears are growing of a brain drain of the brightest students from other parts of Britain to London and the south east – which accounts for the majority of British universities in the top 100. The only exceptions are Cambridge, Edinburgh and Manchester.
Phil Baty, editor of Times Higher Education Rankings, said: "The UK has lost three big-name universities from the list of the world's 100 most prestigious institutions since the rankings were first published in 2011. In 2012, the University of Sheffield exited the rankings, in 2013 the University of Leeds followed suit, and this year the University of Bristol misses out.”
He added: "Given how important global reputation is in attracting top international talent, collaborations and investment, this is cause for concern. The UK has some of the world's biggest university brands: we must protect them."
A reputation for academic excellence not only attracts the best students, staff and researchers, but also investment by philanthropists and industry alike, according to Mr Baty.
Britain has “one of the strongest university systems in the world,” according to Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of vice-chancellors' group Universities UK, but “if we want to maintain this leading position, we must start matching our competitors' increased investment in higher education,” she warned.
The concern was echoed by Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union: “Other countries recognise the value of their universities and if we do not match their investment we will struggle to maintain our position.”
In a statement yesterday, a spokesperson for Cambridge University said the ranking “reflects the fact” that it “is among a small group of the most respected and influential higher education institutions in the world.”
David Alder, the director of marketing at the University of Bristol, said: "League tables provide a partial view. Bristol is and remains one of the most popular universities, as is illustrated by both its very high number of applicants per place as well as by the fact that it is one of the few universities noted for its ability to have increased its intake of high achieving students."
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, said: “The UK has a global reputation for excellence in higher education. We have strong institutions, a world-class research base and dedicated staff. To stay ahead in the global race, we are protecting the research budget, making UK research more accessible and delivering a better student experience."
Oxford University did not respond to a request for comment.