So should we be worried that UK universities are slipping down the global rankings?

No, is the short answer. For the long answer, read on...

Last week, the 2012-2013 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings were released, with news that over the past two years, three UK universities have dropped out of the top 100.

The rankings editor Phil Baty added that outside the “chosen few” UK universities that are maintaining or improving their positions, there is “cause for alarm”. Whether this statement should apply only to those responsible for running UK universities, or whether students should be worried too is debatable. A look into whether the apparent slip is significant, and why some UK universities might slip down the rankings over the coming years, might give some indication as to whether, as Mr Baty suggests, there is cause for concern.

The Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings, through issuing biannual opinion surveys to academics around the world, judge universities by reputation in research and teaching; attributing them a score out of 100 and ranking them highest to lowest.

Given that the rankings are based on reputation, the findings are purely subjective. The magazine is completely aware and clear about this, but maintains that the data nevertheless holds value because it is drawn from experts. Debates about who should qualify as an expert and whether their opinion holds value aside, it is true to say that the rankings have gained frequent mention in the international media and are presented to students as being worthy of consideration. It might follow then, that concern on the part of the man responsible for overseeing the rankings should filter into the UK student population.

A fuss over nothing?

The real picture, however, is not as bleak as it might initially seem; in fact, it would be a push to say that it’s bleak at all. There are a few important considerations that should be noted by all of those who are troubled by the recent rankings.

First of all, there is the issue of scores. In the upper tiers of the rankings there is significant difference between university scores, for example the difference between Stanford and Princeton universities – sixth and seventh overall, respectively – is 34.4. Lower down in the rankings however, the differences are far less significant. For instance, between Melbourne and Sydney – 39th and 49th respectively – the difference is only 2.2.

Scores are withheld for universities ranked below 50th, but given the trend in the first 50 it would be reasonable to assume that from place to place, score differences would linger around 0.1-0.4 at most. Why is this important? Because when considering the fall of the three UK universities once in the top 100, none of which having ever been in the top 50, it can be assumed that the change in their score overall has been relatively negligible.

The second consideration that serves to paint a brighter picture is how well the UK fares in comparison with other countries. Out of the 84 EU universities in the top 200, 31 of them are in the UK. This was the same in last year’s rankings, and is an increase from 2011 when rankings first began. In terms of the number of institutions in the top 100, globally the UK is second only to the USA.

The third consideration to be made is the rise of universities abroad, which could be used to explain why UK institutions are conceding a few places in the rankings. It is common knowledge how many countries in Asia have experienced significant economic growth and development over the past half century or so. Now, that growth, along with investment in education, is starting to pay dividends. This year universities in South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have risen up the rankings. Outside of Asia, others are faring well too; the number of Australian universities in the top 100, for example, rose from four to six this year.

Is research over-weighted?

A final consideration to make for students, though there are of course others, is that the scores are based on research and teaching at a ratio of 2:1. This means that whilst one university might possess a higher reputation score overall than another, it might hold a lower reputation in teaching. Though the research programmes of universities do affect a student’s educational experience while undertaking a degree, in undergraduate programs they are doubtless less important than the quality of teaching.

There are of course other factors in the debate about whether this year’s results should be worrying to students or not, but when considering the picture when examined beyond face value, as above, it would be reasonable to say that for now there is probably not any ‘cause for alarm’ amongst the student population. What the rankings show is that the UK still houses what are perceived to be some of the most prestigious universities in the world.

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