Cambridge holds top slot in university league table

Trinity College, Cambridge University Cambridge is among the universities planning to charge £9,000 a year tuition fees

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Cambridge University has held its top place in an international university league table, after ending Harvard's six-year lead in last year's rankings.

But QS, the firm behind the tables, warned tighter finances could hit UK universities in the future.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said it expected funding to grow "by around 10% by 2014-15".

The rankings assess factors including reputation, graduate employability, research and staff-student ratios.

The picture was similar to a year ago, with US institutions leading overall.

As last year, three other UK universities made the top 10 - Oxford rose one place to fifth, while Imperial College rose one place to sixth and University College London dropped from fourth to seventh.

In total there were 31 UK institutions in the top 200, compared with 30 last year - but the number in the top 100 dropped from 19 to 18.

QS RANKING: TOP 10

  • 1. Cambridge (1)
  • 2. Harvard (2)
  • 3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (5)
  • 4. Yale (3)
  • 5. Oxford (6)
  • 6. Imperial College London (7)
  • 7. University College London (4)
  • 8. University of Chicago (8)
  • 9. University of Pennsylvania (12)
  • 10. Columbia University (11)

Ben Sowter, head of research at QS, said that in the context of the debate over raised tuition fees and cuts to teaching and research budgets, the largely unchanged picture would be seen as "welcome news".

But he said pre-emptive redundancies and increased student intake were already affecting UK universities' rankings on staff-student ratios.

In total, 34 out of 37 UK universities in the top 300 had dropped down the list when institutions were ranked purely on this measure, he said.

Mr Sowter said he believed it was "inevitable" that financial pressures would hit UK universities' positions in the table in future years - in terms of staffing, research productivity, influence and whether more British students would head overseas.

Lower levels

The government says tuition fees will actually bring a small increase in universities' income, but Mr Sowter said confusion over the likely impact of the new funding structure might have as much impact on universities' standing as the policy itself.

The Russell Group of research intensive universities warned that "all league tables have their limitations", but said the figures gave "another indication that UK universities punch well above their weight on the world stage".

It pointed out that the US, Germany, South Korea, Australia, Canada and Japan all spent a higher proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) on higher education than the UK, and called on the government to "recognise the importance of world-class research-intensive universities" to future prosperity.

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said UK universities' global reputation was "well deserved".

"Our reforms will put students at the heart of the system, allowing popular universities to expand and putting the sector on a sustainable financial footing.

"We expect total funding for UK universities to grow by around 10% by 2014-15," the spokesman said.

US universities maintain their dominance in the rankings, making up 31 of the top 100 institutions.

However, the main up-and-coming region is East Asia, particularly Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, said Mr Sowter.

But at the lower levels in the rankings, universities in Latin America and the Middle East were climbing the table, he added.

Value for money

This year's table includes information on tuition fees.

Mr Sowter said a preliminary analysis of the data suggested ETH Zurich university offered international students the best value for money, with institutions in Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, France and Germany also performing well.

And in terms of value for money for UK students, QS says several universities in the Netherlands, such as Amsterdam, Utrecht, Leiden, Maastricht and Groningen offering courses for less than £2,000 a year were ranked above UK universities such as Liverpool, Newcastle and Cardiff planning to charge £9,000 from 2012.

The QS rankings are weighted 40% to academic reputation, 10% to employability, 20% to research citations, 20% to the staff-student ratio and give a further 10% weighting to how international the make-up of the faculty and student body is.

Until last year, the QS rankings have been published in partnership with the UK's Times Higher Education (THE) magazine.

But THE has begun publishing its own rankings, saying the QS ones rely too heavily on subjective surveys of scholars and employers.

US universities fared even better in their table last year, with Harvard top.

From 2012, universities in England will be able to charge tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year.

Those in Scotland and Wales will also be able to do so, but with subsidies for home students.

Northern Ireland has said fees will remain similar to this year.

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