THE World University Rankings 2019: Asia cashes in on UK decline
University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom. Source: Sidharth Bhatia/Unsplash

Today sees the launch of Times Higher Education‘s (THE) World University Rankings – the 2019 edition.

Now in its 15th year, this respected annual table lists more than 1,250 global higher education providers, up from just over 1,100 last year, and now features 86 countries over last year’s 81.

The annual list is long awaited among both universities and their professors, with coveted positions representing a badge of honour that, in the words of Cambridge Vice-Chancellor, Stephen Toope, allow universities to be “confident in their missions, and also to speak up for knowledge, evidence and skills”.

But in an era marked by the seat of Trump and the storm of Brexit Britain, turbulence has undoubtedly shaken up higher education trends.

One of few that remains unchanged across the UK sector, Oxford University has held its top spot for the third consecutive year, also dominating the global scale for research (volume, income and reputation). Cambridge closely follows suit, maintaining second place for another year, also coming in second for global research.

And while Cambridge comes in third for teaching after US-based CalTech and Stanford, Oxford’s lead is trumped as it comes in fifth.

But whispers of the UK’s declining reputation as the second-most popular study destination have been circulating this year. Back in July, the Centre for Global Higher Education found the region to be at great risk of losing its position as the second choice study destination for international students, if not already lost.

With Brexit set to remove free movement within the EU, eliminating the provision of UK education on the same tuition basis as domestic students, prospective learners are looking for cheaper, more viable alternatives for their study abroad experience.

All the while, harsh immigration policies introduced in 2012 uphold a perceived “hostile environment”, with the Home Office targeting foreign students who have “no right” to remain in their respective study destination.

“Teaching starts next week and I have mainly made international friends at uni,” a first year economics student at Oxford Brookes told Study International.

“I imagine people judge me because of the stereotype of all Swiss people being rich. For now I have to say that everything seems normal…but if I find myself in a hostile environment due to my internationalism I would definitely be upset. Even more so because international students pay a lot more for the same education but get treated worse by fellow students.”

As a talent pool that contributes £26 billion a year to the UK economy, can the UK afford to disappoint such a valuable commodity and let its challengers cash in?

Competing regions are already reaping significant rewards, with Japan claiming 103 positions to the UK’s 98. Following several years of decline, Japan’s performance is strong, allowing it to surpass the UK as the second -most-represented nation in the whole league table.

And while the UK has retained its status as the second-most-represented within the top 200 after the US, the majority (21 of 29) have either been static or in decline. Two UK institutions – the University of Dundee and Royal Holloway – have fallen out of the top 200 altogether.

2019 Global Top 10

Institution name Country/region  2019 global ranking 2018 global ranking
University of Oxford United Kingdom  1 1
University of Cambridge United Kingdom  2 2
Stanford University United States  3 =3
Massachusetts Institute of Technology United States  4 5
California Institute of Technology United States  5 =3
Harvard University United States  6 6
Princeton University United States  7 7
Yale University United States  8 12
Imperial College London United Kingdom  9 8
University of Chicago United States  10 9

But Asia continues to rise. China’s new leading player, Tsinghua University, tops the UK’s LSE (which slips from the top 25) and the University of Edinburgh to become Asia’s most elite institution. Another of the UK’s high performers – King’s College London (KCL) – was trumped by an Asian counterpart this year, as the University of Hong Kong jumps from 40th up to 36th. KCL, on the other hand, falls two places down to 38th.

2019 Regional Table – Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan

Institution name Country




2018 Rank
Tsinghua University China  22 30
Peking University China  31 =27
University of Hong Kong Hong Kong  36 40
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Hong Kong  46 44
Chinese University of Hong Kong Hong Kong  55 58
University of Science and Technology of China China  =93 132
Zhejiang University China  101 =177
Fudan University China  105 116
City University of Hong Kong Hong Kong  =110 =119
Nanjing University China  =135 =169

The US is still a clear front-runner and Europe demonstrates strong game, but there are hints of stagnation amid intensified international competition, on top of national funding cuts and tightened immigration policies.

Seven European institutions are represented in the 2019 top 30, the same as last year’s table, with the region also occupying half of the top 200. After the UK, Germany (with 47), Italy (43), Spain (38) and France (34) are the most-represented European countries in the ranking, while the UK (29), Germany (23) and the Netherlands (12) are the most-represented European countries in the top 200.

Is Asia set to be the next greatest force in higher education after the US? Or can the UK and Europe use this next year to recover?

“While there is great success for many European countries and universities in this year’s rankings, a shift in the political climate across the continent could damage many of its higher education systems in future years,” says Ellie Bothwell, Rankings Editor for THE.

“Universities in the UK, and Europe as a whole, will lose out if its pan-European mobility and research collaborations are restricted as a result of Brexit, while the rise in far-right populism is already impacting universities’ academic freedom as a result of Brexit.

“These factors combined with stiff competition from Asia will put European universities under a great deal of pressure over the coming 12 months.”

Click here to browse the full results of THE’s World University Rankings 2019.

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