Oxford University becomes first UK institution to top world university rankings

Oxford vice-chancellor, however, cites lack of funding and Brexit as potential threats to university’s future

Oxford university, pictured, knocks five-time champion California Institute of Technology into second place
Oxford university, pictured, knocks five-time champion California Institute of Technology into second place

The University of Oxford has been named the top institution in the world, a first for the UK in this year’s Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings.

In the latest table – the first of which was published in 2004 – the British university has knocked five-time champion the California Institute of Technology into second place, as the UK takes 91 of the top 980 places. Eighty-eight of these make the top 800, compared with 78 last year.

The UK is second only to the US for the number of world-class universities featured in the top 800. Within the top 200, the UK has 32 representatives, just two shy of last year’s sum. Alongside Oxford, the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London have also made the top 10.

Despite Oxford taking the top spot, however, the university’s vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson, hit out at lack of funding, tighter government regulations and Brexit as being potential threats to the future of the institution.

She said: “If our academics cannot secure funding for their research, they will move elsewhere. We, frankly, do not have the resources to commensurate with our global position.”

Her comments have come after some of the UK’s top universities reportedly faced issues working with their European partners, including being asked to leave EU-funded projects, in the wake of the referendum result.

The vice-chancellor added: “We are also more tightly regulated than many of our global competitors. I’ve seen no evidence to suggest all these regulations improve the quality of what we do, and yet they are a major distraction of time and resources.”

Ms Richardson cited the Government’s upcoming teaching excellence framework (TEF) – which will monitor and assess the quality of teaching in England’s universities – as a particular concern, and said she is worried about the impact it will have on Oxford’s one-on-one approach to teaching.

“I do worry the forthcoming TEF may be inclined, as most regulations are, to attempt to enforce conformity across the sector and fail to appreciate the value of its diversity and, in particular, the value of unique approaches like ours,” she said.

The Brexit result is also a cause for concern, with Ms Richardson revealing it was already affecting Oxford’s ability to conduct research and attract top talent. She said: “We have innumerable examples of academics being frozen out of collaborative research projects, withdrawing from job searches, and burnishing their CVs with a view to moving to an institution where their funding will be secure. This is the piece that worries me most.” She also said the university was lobbying the Government to ensure the interests of universities were protected.

THE’s list has come just weeks after the QS World University Rankings highlighted how post-Brexit uncertainty and long-term funding issues are starting to stir up challenges for the UK’s universities; 38 of the UK’s 48 top-400 universities dropped down the rankings, with the University of Cambridge dropping out of the global top three for first time since 2004.

Theresa May warns that Brexit won't be plain sailing

Education Secretary Justine Greening said it was “fantastic” to see a UK university top THE’s world rankings for the first time.

She added: “We want to see this success continue and provide real opportunities for students up and down the country. That is why we are reforming higher education to make sure it delivers the quality teaching and skills students and employers expect. We are also looking at proposals to require universities to open or sponsor schools to help create more great school places and ensure every child can fulfil their potential.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said the UK must adopt “a new approach” to immigration and visas for international students and staff if the nation is to maintain its global position. She continued: “We must also focus efforts on promoting the UK’s world-class higher education sector across the globe. This is more important than ever as the UK looks to enhance its place in the world post-Brexit.

“Such rankings, however, cannot tell the whole story about the strength of our sector, and universities’ positions will vary from one international table to the next.”

Four UK institutions – Sheffield, St Andrews, Queen Mary and Exeter – slipped out of THE’s top 100. As well as the four, similar trends can be seen elsewhere in Europe; France, Belgium, Spain, and Italy have each lost one top 200 representative.

Europe’s decline occurs as Asia continues its ascent; two new Asian universities have made the top 100, while another four join the top 200. THE rankings editor Phil Baty described how the UK will have to “watch out” for Asia’s continuing ascent. He said: “Although the notion of Asia as the ‘next higher education superpower’ has become something of a cliché in recent years, the continent’s rise in the rankings is real and growing.

“The UK must ensure that it limits the damage to academics, students, universities and science during its Brexit negotiations to ensure it remains one of the world leaders in higher education.”

The full 2016/17 THE World University Rankings can be viewed here

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