A record six UK universities are ranked in the top 20 throughout the world, according to research published today.
However, the widely respected QS World University Rankings show there is no cause for complacency - as more UK universities are slipping down the world university league table than improving their position.
The results of the research show four UK institutions in the top 10 - Cambridge (the highest ranking at number three), University College London, Imperial College London and Oxford (down one slot at number 6). The two UK newcomers to the top 20 are Edinburgh (at 17=) and Kings College London (19=).
However, the table goes on to show that, of the 45 UK universities to reach the global top 400, 29 have a lower ranking than they had at the start of the global financial crisis in 2007/8, 21 have dropped more than 10 places while just five have moved ten places higher.
In addition, when it comes to research only Cambridge remains in the global top 30 for citations with just UCL, Oxford and Imperial joining it in the top 50. The US, by contrast, has 31 institutions in the top 50.
There were warnings from academics last night that the UK’s position could deteriorate if investment in higher education remained below the average level for OECD countries.
John O’Leary, a member of the QS Global Academic Advisory Board, said: “The UK invests below the OECD average in higher education so it is unrealistic to expect its universities to continue to punch above their weight indefinitely.
“The current success of leading institutions shows how vital it is that the Government matches the investments made by other countries in order to maintain their world-class status.”
The rankings are the first to be published to take in a full-year of the new fees regime in the UK which allows for fees of up to £9,000 a year to be charged - meaning institutions more heavily reliant on students for their income can tap into more resources.
Universities Minister David Willetts praised the findings as “fantastic news for the universities, their academics and their students who are some of the most employable in the world.”
He added: “Our reforms to undergraduate finance have put universities on a sustainable financial footing and sharpened incentives to deliver a world-class student experience.”
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group - 17 of whose 24 institutions are in the top 100 - said the group’s focus on research and high quality teaching “means the UK performs formidably well against other nations in spite of its size”.
However, she pointed out that the UK spent far less on higher education than the US, China and other Western European countries, adding: “If our universities are to compete in the future they need the Government to provide light-touch regulation and continued investment and to be welcoming to genuine international students.
Meanwhile, a report by Universities UK - the body which represents vice-chancellors - will today show an increase in the number of students receiving bursaries from 346,000 to 442,000 since the introduction of the new fees structure.
Nicola Dandridge, its chief executive, said: “Fees have meant that institutions can continue to provide students with the world-class education they expect from universities and continue to improve on what they can offer to students.”
The top 20 universities
1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a strong emphasis on science, engineering and technological education and research. Founded 1861.
2. Harvard University Oldest established university in the United States, dating back to 1636. Eight US presidents have been graduates and it is the alma mater for 62 living billionaires.
3. Cambridge University The UK’s highest ranking university. It grew out of an association of scholars - who were refugees from Oxford after falling out with local townsfolk - in 1209.
4. University College London UCL is the oldest constituent college of the University of London. It was the first in England to be established on an entirely secular basis to admit students regardless of their religion - and their sex.
5. Imperial College London Founded in 1907, it specialises in science, engineering, medicine and business.
6. Oxford University There is evidence of teaching here way back in 1096 - making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
7. Stanford University Located in California, it was founded in 1891 and named after the son of railroad magnate Leland Stanford who declared “the children of California shall be our children”
8.Yale University Founded in 1701 in New Haven, Connecticut, it has around 5,300 undergraduates and 6,100 graduates and professional students. It has educated five US presidents.
9. Chicago University The university, with about 15,000 students, is consistently rated as one of the world’s top 10 universities. It is home to the University of Chicago Press, the largest university press in the US.
10=. California Institute of Technology Sited in Pasadena, it places strong emphasis on science and engineering and was established in 1891.
10=. Princeton University Founded as the College of New Jersey in 1746, it adopted its present name in 1896. It specialises in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering - but does not have schools of medicine, law or business.
12. ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) The highest ranking university outside the US and UK, it specialises in engineering, science, technology, mathematics and management and is sited in Zurich.
13. University of Pennsylvania Founded by Benjamin Franklin, who advocated focussing on a practical education for commerce and public service just as highly as the classics and theology, it now offers a broad range of courses.
14. Columbia University Founded in 1754 as King’s College by royal charter, it is the oldest institution of higher education in the state of New York. It is famous for annually administering the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s most prestigious award.
15. Cornell University Located in Ithaca, New York, it was founded in 1865 with the intention of teaching all fields of knowledge - a pledge contained in the motto of its founder Ezra Cornell who said: “I would fund an institution where any person can find instruction in any body.”
16. Johns Hopkins University It is a not-for-profit private research university based in Baltimore and founded in 1876 by the philanthropist of the same name. It has campuses in Italy, China and Singapore as well as the States.
17=. Edinburgh University The first UK newcomer into the top 20 and also the highest ranking Scottish university. It receives around 47,000 applications a year - making it the third most popular university in the UK by volume of applicants.
17=. Toronto University Founded by royal charter in 1827, it assumed its present name in 1850 after becoming a secular institution (it had previously been controlled by the Church of England). It is noted for its influence on the world of literary criticism and communications theory. It also first pioneered the use of insulin and stem-cell research.
19=. Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) one of two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (the other being ETH Zurich), it opened with a mission to educate engineers and scientists, be a national centre of excellence in science and technology and provide a hub for interaction between the scientific community and commerce.
19=. Kings College London The second newcomer from the UK to the top 20, it can lay claim to being the third oldest university in England, having been founded by King George IV and the Duke of Wellington in 1829.