In Focus

How Oxford University lost its top world ranking (and it’s not for the reason you may think)

When the UK’s most prestigious university was beaten by Imperial in a global university table this week, many believed it was down to slipping standards. The real explanation, says Alastair McCall, who has spent nearly 25 years compiling tables like these, may surprise you...

Saturday 08 June 2024 06:00 BST
Oxford and Cambridge have been knocked off their perch
Oxford and Cambridge have been knocked off their perch (Getty)

It’s been quite a week in the senior common rooms of wisteria-clad academia. Oxford and Cambridge have been knocked off their perch in a leading international university ranking for the first time.

When the 2025 QS World University Rankings were released earlier this week, four British universities were placed in the Top 10 – Imperial College London, Oxford, Cambridge, and University College London – with Imperial being the top-ranked British university, second in the world overall, but crucially ahead of Oxford (third) and Cambridge (fifth). It had never happened before, internationally at least.

It shows that times are changing. Of the four UK university rankings published in the past year, Cambridge now tops just one. St Andrews comes top in two, with Imperial – a university known for science and technology – taking a bow on the top step of the podium for the first time.

Until 2021, no university other than Oxford or Cambridge had ever finished top of a domestic ranking, and the same two universities always shared the spoils as the leading UK institutions in any global analysis.

These subtle changes in the academic power dynamic matter. I have it on good authority that when St Andrews topped the Sunday Times Good University Guide’s ranking for the first time in 2021, its principal professor, Dame Sally Mapstone, “squealed” with delight. While higher education institutions often distance themselves publicly from the dirty business of university positioning, behind closed doors they take as prurient an interest in them as the rest of us.

But what does this movement in the tectonic plates really reveal? Have standards slipped at Oxford and Cambridge? Or have the rest started to catch up? Looking at the track record of our five Tory prime ministers of the past 15 years – Oxford graduates one and all – you wonder whether perhaps we could try a few PMs from Imperial. Give another university a go. Put the scientists in charge for a while.

A closer look at the numbers shows that this power shift has come about because university rankings are now starting to measure different things. Things that reflect crucial changes in the world around us.

For example, in this latest global table, sustainability is measured for the first time. This is not an assessment of whether universities recycle enough of their coffee cups, but a proper look at how they measure up when it comes to institutional research impact across the United Nations’ 17 sustainability development goals. It looks at the impact of science and technology alumni on tackling the climate crisis, as well as the environmental impact of the university itself. 

On this, Imperial outscores Oxford and Cambridge, achieving 99.7 to their respective 85.0 and 84.8. In a world in which most of the differences between top institutions tend to be measured in the range of 100 to 97, this is a clear gulf in class. 

Imperial also performs strongly in two other metrics that capture the internationalisation of the student body and the senior common room. As universities complain ever more loudly that they can’t afford to teach UK undergraduates, those with a global reputation are turning increasingly to international students to balance the books.

Until 2021, no university other than Oxford or Cambridge had ever finished top of a domestic ranking
Until 2021, no university other than Oxford or Cambridge had ever finished top of a domestic ranking (iStock)

At Imperial last September, the intake of 3,135 admitted through Ucas was split almost evenly, with 1,650 from the UK and 1,490 from overseas. As a powerhouse of research, Imperial also scored a perfect 100 for its international faculty ratio, which measures the international recruitment of academics.

Imperial also significantly outguns Oxford and Cambridge on research citations per faculty – the second most highly weighted indicator in the QS table. Here, the scores are 93.9, 84.8 and 84.6 respectively. The citation score is a measure of both the volume and the intensity of research; essentially, how often your research is quoted by others. 

Research in cutting-edge areas helps a university score well, and Imperial’s focus on science, engineering, technology, maths, medicine and business means it is 100 per cent engaged in subjects that hope to answer some of our planet’s most urgent questions.

Graduates in these subjects also find themselves in particular demand with employers. It is no coincidence that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston – which also has a strong (though not exclusive) offering in these areas of study – is the only university to finish above Imperial in these latest global rankings.

Oxford and Cambridge gain no advantage by having a more multi-faculty subject base. Yes, we still need history graduates and English scholars, but their value to society is less easily captured in new-look ranking metrics.

In purely educational terms, it might seem something of an affront to judge teaching establishments on the success their graduates achieve in a jobs market beyond the ivory towers

What is absolutely not true, however, is the easy-to-reach explanation that standards in both institutions are slipping, or the charge from some quarters that they have been nobbled by the woke brigade, forcing them to recruit a more diverse student body.

When Imperial ousted Oxbridge in the Daily Mail University Guide I compiled last year, some dismissed it as a by-product of including social inclusion in the ranking. The reality was more complicated. Imperial’s triumph was also founded on the increased weighting given in that ranking to student experience, captured by the annual National Student Survey and success in the graduate jobs market – both areas in which Imperial outmuscles Oxbridge.

Imperial was significantly ahead on social inclusion, with an undergraduate intake that included 25.9 per cent whose parents had not gone to university, whereas at Oxford and Cambridge, the comparable figures were 17.7 per cent and 18.3 per cent respectively.

However, all three still ranked in the bottom 10 nationally on this measure. Oxford and Cambridge, for all the column inches expended on the long-overdue and significant increase in the proportion of state school admissions, are still rooted to the very foot of the table when it comes to admitting first-generation students.

Ranking universities on student diversity is again a reflection of changing attitudes – a necessary update to university ranking structures to match the expectations of today’s students, who appreciate the key role higher education can play in driving social mobility. 

In purely educational terms, it might seem something of an affront to judge teaching and research establishments on the success their graduates achieve in a jobs market beyond the ivory towers, but it’s a necessity for students like my eldest son who, one year on from leaving a Russell Group university, is looking at a mounting student loan debt of £57,000.

Imperial outscores Oxford and Cambridge by 99.7 to 85.0 and 84.8 on sustainability
Imperial outscores Oxford and Cambridge by 99.7 to 85.0 and 84.8 on sustainability (Getty)

Students and their parents paying ridiculously high university and private accommodation costs are looking for some reassurance that there will be a return on their investment. 

As science and tech are where some of the best jobs with the highest salaries can be found, Imperial again cleans up, outperforming Oxford and Cambridge: 96.5 per cent of Imperial graduates land highly skilled jobs in the most recent data, compared to 90.9 per cent at Oxford and 92.5 per cent at Cambridge.

Their median earnings 15 months after graduating are £35,000, £32,000 and £33,000 respectively. Here we can see that the changing of the guard at the top of university rankings, rather than being yet another symbol of national decline, is the result of employers targeting specific groups of students with the skills they need to address contemporary business and societal issues.

We want universities to lead on the issues of the day, with climate change and sustainability to the fore; we want admissions to be fair and inclusive; and we want value for money, for our student children to stand a better than evens chance of being able to repay their student debt quickly.

Capturing these altered demands has inevitably led to changes in the established order. Used wisely, modern domestic and international rankings do a good job of identifying the wider distribution of excellence within higher education by our new definitions. Parents and applicants are taking note. That two universities no longer rule the roost is a good thing; how can it not be, when we now have three of the top 5 universities in the world, outgunning even the United States? 

Professor Alastair McCall is deputy director of the Centre of Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham. After 24 years editing the Sunday Times Good University Guide, he is the current editor of the Daily Mail University Guide

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