University challenge: The gap between the best and the rest is widening

Britain’s five top-performing universities may have shot up the global league tables, but the majority – 29 out of the 45 in the top 400 – now rank lower than they did

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That a record six British universities have made it into the 2013 global top 20 – two more than last year – can only be wholeheartedly welcomed.

Such a strong showing is good news for Britain’s students, of course, and also for the economy into which they will make their highly skilled way. But it is, furthermore, good news for UK plc; for all the controversy that attends education policy, in particular student fees, our universities are a world-leading industry upon which we should capitalise. The number of international students at UK institutions has jumped more than 40 per cent in five years and there is scope for more.

Full marks, then, to the consistently high-ranking four – Cambridge, UCL, Imperial College London and Oxford; and, in particular, to the University of Edinburgh and King’s College London, which move into the top 20 for the first time this year.

Behind the headlines, however, the picture is more mixed. Britain’s five top-performing universities may have shot up by more than 10 places since the financial crisis in 2007-08, but the majority – 29 out of the 45 in the top 400 – now rank lower than they did. More concerning still, when it comes to producing top-notch research, British institutions are falling behind their US rivals. Indeed, only Cambridge makes the global top 30 for research citations.

While there is much to be proud of, then, we cannot afford to be complacent. Effort must be made to ensure that the lessons learned by our most successful universities are applied elsewhere. And the controversy over £9,000-per-year tuition fees cannot be allowed to obscure the implications of long-term, lower-than-average investment in research. The tertiary education sector is one of Britain’s strengths. But it still needs work.

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