Old world dons rise to the top

Oxford and Cambridge take the first two spots in the THE World Rankings, and Asian institutions threaten the old guard from below, writes Irena Barker

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) had been riding high. Between 2012 and 2016 it took the top spot of leading global rankings, and enjoyed the fame of being the setting for the popular comedy show The Big Bang Theory.

But despite the glamour of its association with Sheldon, Leonard and friends, the home of the NASA Jet Propulsion laboratory’s fortunes have fallen.

Indeed, the prestigious school fell to second place last year, and is now in the ignominious position of joint third – with Stanford – in the 2018 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

And who has beaten it? Well, the old world has come good. Oxford is now in the top spot – for the second year running, with Cambridge in second. It is the first time in the 14 year history of the rankings that the top two places have been taken by British universities. The rankings compilers say Cambridge’s rise to the top is due to a rise in income and research quality this year, while Caltech and Stanford (in joint 3rd) were hurt by drops to their PhD-to-bachelor’s ratios.

Caltech also received a much more modest rise in its research income per academic staff member compared with the other three institutions.And what happened at Caltech seems to be happening elsewhere in the United States. Nearly all of the US’ top-200 representatives (59 out of 62) faced drops in their research income per academic staff member and future levels of federal research income under the Trump administration are in doubt. Two-fifths of the universities in this elite group (29) have fallen in the rankings.

Almost inevitably, it seems, US and European universities are also up against the might of Asian universities, which are rapidly improving.

Peking University has risen two places to joint 27th place, which puts it on a par with New York University and the University of Edinburgh. Tsinghua University has climbed five places to 30th position, overtaking the University of Melbourne, Georgia Institute of Technology, LMU Munich and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. The National University of Singapore, Asia’s top university, has risen two places to joint 22nd, and now outranks Carnegie Mellon University in the US. Despite this Asian success, most leading British institutions have held their positions in the table, with a few climbing up or down a few places. This stability may yet be shaken by Brexit, which experts warn could have a serious impact on university funding.