American universities have dominated the Top Ten in the latest World University Rankings, leaving UK universities behind in the race to become the most desirable study abroad location.

According to the QS World University Rankings, universally regarded as the most definitive of its kind, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) maintained its position as the best university in the world, with Harvard following behind in second, two places up from its previous position, pushing the UK’s University of Cambridge down to third place.

The UK has managed to uphold four universities’ position in the Top Ten in the world. The University of Oxford and the University College London (UCL) have taken a slide; both were ranked joint fifth last year, but Oxford has fallen to sixth with UCL coming in seventh. King’s College London has dropped three places, from last year’s 16th, to 19th in the rankings for 2015.

Cambridge, Oxford and UCL represent the best HE institutions in the UK, as Glasgow lost its Top Ten position to the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Professor Craig Calhoun, LSE’s Director, described how the most recent result was excellent for both students and staff. He said: “It reflects both LSE’s longstanding global leadership in social science and its continued creativity.

“We will keep working to channel our intellectual distinction into an ever-more dynamic and satisfying student experience.”

One of the biggest casualties of the new rankings is the Imperial College London, which came in equal second with Cambridge last year, but this year dropped down to eighth position due to a change in the methodology used to rate the institutions.

In previous years, the QS rankings preferred universities recognised for research excellence, which is predominant in fields of medical science, but this methodology has been altered in order to give credit to institutions that excel in the arts or humanities, but produce fewer citations.

Overall, a total of 82 countries are represented in this year’s list. The US boasts the largest share of top institutions (154), followed by the UK (71), then Germany (43), followed by France (41), and finally Japan (38).

Despite the fall in positions, London is the only city in the world with four universities in the Top 50; Boston and New York both have three, while Paris, Sydney, Hong Kong and Beijing all have two.

The rankings are formed using six key factors: academic reputation, student-to-faculty ratio, citations per faculty, employer reputation, international faculty ratio, and international student ratio. These indicators are then further assessed to gain a better understanding of the institution’s research, teaching, employability and internationalisation.

Ben Sowter, head of research at QS, says: “That the LSE is a world-class institution is not news. Indeed, they have been a firm fixture of the QS Top 100 for over a decade, but in any ranking system that places emphasis on medicine and sciences, their strength in their areas of speciality are never likely to shine as brightly as they ought to.

“The QS methodology now evens the playing field and LSE climbs 36 places to be counted, rightfully, amongst the world’s top 40.”

John O’Leary, a member of the QS global advisory board, added: “The UK remains second only to the US as a higher education destination. The leading universities may have lost ground, but they still make up four of the Top Ten in the world.”

Despite maintaining four top positions, many critics believe that the UK government’s recent visa reforms have gone too far and have put the competitiveness of UK universities at risk.

Edward Byrne, former Vice-Chancellor of Monash University, now takes the lead of King’s College London. He believes that British universities offer stiff competition in attracting international students, but that taking its position for granted could put the UK’s reputation in danger.

He says: “I also have experience of Australia’s policy of restricting foreign student numbers in response to popular concerns about immigration- a policy that had to be rapidly reversed. Britain seems to be making the same mistake.

“Over the past five years the UK Government has tried to tackle abuse of the student visa system and to ensure international graduates are taking only genuine graduate-level jobs. Some of these measures are needed and I believe the Home Secretary when she insists that the Government is not intent on weakening our place in the international education market.”

Byrne points out that the closure of the UK’s post-study work scheme has prevented students from recruitment markets like India and Nigeria from applying to study in the UK.

He adds: “But the measures go too far and put the competitiveness of UK universities at risk. Our growth is constrained, and even stagnating, while demand for English-language higher education is growing strongly in the United States, Canada and Australia are liberalising their visa regimes to capture a bigger slice of the market.”

The UK’s international higher education market generates approximately £10billion each year, and its pivotal role in educating the leaders of the future cause the country to rank as one of the best of the world, second only to the United States of America. But with ever-increasing fees, a harsh clampdown on student immigration and a global reputation that seems to be slipping, will the UK be able to uphold its position in the world rankings?

Image via Shutterstock.

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