Oxford and Cambridge reign atop Times Higher Education’s 2018 World University Rankings as the US tumbles

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

For the second year, Oxford University is the world’s best topping Times Higher Education (THE) 2017/18 World University Rankings. (Wikipedia Commons)

There is new powerhouse couple topping the 2018 edition of Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings. The University of Cambridge joins the reigning university Oxford moving up to second place. For the first time in the ranking’s history, American schools are left out in the cold from the top positions. Times Higher Education (THE) released their 2017/18 World University Rankings on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, and for the second year, Oxford University is the world’s best. With Cambridge in second former five-time honor winner, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) slides to tie for third place with the United States most selective school, Stanford University. The ranking shows an increased pre-eminence for British, European and Asian schools while American schools fall in the ranks.

With Oxford again on top, vice-chancellor Louise Richardson told THE she was “delighted that Oxford has held its position at the top of these global rankings.” Continuing Richardson expressed, “To be judged the best university in the world for the second successive year, against a backdrop in which Britain’s role in the world is uncertain and the place of universities in society open to question, will be a great source of pride for everyone at Oxford, and, I hope, for the whole country.” Richard son concluded, “Success in our field is never an accident, it is “achieved by a relentless pursuit of excellence, creative brilliance and a deep commitment to our enduring values.”

The second half of the top ten stayed mostly the same. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) remains in 5th place, Harvard University stays in sixth, Princeton University in seventh. The Imperial College London also remains in eighth, the University of Chicago in ninth place, and ETH Zurich — Swiss Federal Institute of Technology is again tied for tenth place. A new university enters the top ten the University of Pennsylvania moves up three to tie for tenth place. While the University of California, Berkeley, who last year tied for tenth moves down eight to 18th place. The top 10 again features one university outside of the United States and the United Kingdom, Switzerland’s ETH Zurich — Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

The biggest news, however, was how for the second year in a row Britain denies the US the top spot, and this year takes the second place. Before the 2017 world ranking the US had the top university for the list’s 12 years. According to the Wall Street Journal, 2018 marks the fifth year, American universities have declined in ranking and number of universities represented in the top 200. In 2014, there were 77 American schools in the top 200 now there are only 62, 15 less in just four years. Despite losing the top two spots, American universities dominate the top 10 and the ranking list in general, but they are losing ground. According to THE “two-fifths of the US institutions in the top 200 (29 out of 62) have dropped places.” Although American universities are still well represented the U.K, Germany and the Netherlands have the most universities in the top 1000.

Part of the reason for this year’s decline was the election and inauguration of President Donald Trump and his travel ban for six Muslim countries. The ranking collected data at the peak of the hysteria, and although immigration remains an issue, the frenzy over the issue subsided. Unfortunately, American schools suffered in the ranking at the height of the backlash over Trump and his policies. However, THE’s methodology relies heavily on funding and American universities saw a drop in their “institutional income,” with the top Caltech and Stanford dropping by 23 to 24 percent. In contrast, British schools saw an infusion of funding, with Oxford receiving 24 percent more and Cambridge 11 percent. The majority of American schools in the top 200, 59 out 62 dropped in the ranking.

Phil Baty, the rankings editor at Times Higher Education, commented on America’s place in the rankings, calling it stagnation. Baty said, “It’s not doom and gloom, the U.S. still dominates the list, but there are clear warning signs and fairly significant flashing red lights that the U.S. is under threat from increasing competition. Asia is rising. It’s a worrying time for stagnation for the U.S.”

Britain and China saw the largest bumps in the rankings. Britain has always been home to the world oldest and some of most prestigious universities. This year 23 of the 24 universities in UK’s Russell Group were in the top 200. There are 31 British schools in the top 200 with 93 in the top 1000. Last year, Brexit was at the forefront but now it is becoming less of an issue at least for now when it comes to attracting students and research. Future funding, an integral part of the THE ranking methodology is still a question for British schools. Whether the funding and professors from the European Union will remain at current rates is still uncertain.

This year China had seven schools in the top 200, up from only two in 2014 and two in the top 30 Peking and Tsinghua both in Bejing. Asia’s top school is the National University of Singapore tied for 22nd place. China, however, according to the WSJ is manufacturing conditions that increase their profiles in world rankings. The Communist government is investing in their universities, and trying to appeal to international students, although the majority of their foreign students are coming from other Asian countries including South Korea, but also the US.

Elizabeth Perry, a professor of Government at Harvard specializing in China, believes the Chinese government is creating conditions to give their universities an edge in the rankings, which she calls gaming. Perry told the WSJ, “They are hiring an army of postdocs whose responsibility is to produce articles. They are changing the nature of a university from an educational institution to basically a factory that is producing what these rankings reward.”

Many university ranking methodologies rely on the number of citations, research, and articles produced by a university to determine their ranking China is mass marketing research, which Xia Qiong, “a professor at Wuhan University in central China” claims is mostly trash. Xia revealed to the WSJ, “Research overly emphasizes quantity, not quality, and accordingly produces a lot of trash and wastes a lot of research funds.”

In Canada, The University of Toronto remains the country’s top school, coming in at tied for 22nd place in the ranking followed by University of British Columbia at number 34, and McGill University, which remains at 42 again this year. McMaster University seems to be joining the esteemed ranks of University of Toronto, British Columbia and McGill University, the big three of Canadian universities. McMaster saw “the largest jump of any school in the top 100” moving into the top 100 for the first time and to number 78, last year McMaster was 113.

The 35 spot move is attributed to McMaster’s Health Sciences research. According to the WSJ, McMaster “created antibiotics to treat infectious diseases and creating molecules that carry radioactive charges designed to detect cancer in very early forms.” This is the second ranking McMaster has seen their numbers rise. Earlier in August, McMaster eclipsed McGill in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) 2018 edition where McMaster moved up an impressive 17 places and took the 66th spot and third place in Canada.

The THE World University Rankings expanded this year’s rankings with more universities from more countries. This year they ranked 1000 school up from 978 last year. The ranking’s methodology involves four leading indicators, “teaching, research, citations and international outlook,” however; research takes precedence over the others. Baty explained the ranking’s successful methodology, “The single biggest individual indicator is research impact. We’re looking at 56 million citations, 11.9 million research publications.” As the Wall Street Journal indicates, THE’s World Rankings differs from American rankings is because it factors “global reach and includes only universities.”

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings is an offset of the QS World University Ranking. In 2010, Times Higher Education formed a new partnership with Thomson Reuters in 2010 and created a new methodology. The ranking looks at a university’s “teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.” Thomson Reuters utilizes 13 indicators to determine the results of the list, they are under five pillars “overall indicators;” “industry income, internationalism, teaching, research, and citations.”

The annual ranking includes ten additional lists covering subject fields, and universities in particular areas in addition to the main World University Rankings, which ranks the top 200 institutions. Subject field lists include; Arts & Humanities, Clinical, Pre-clinical & Health, Engineering & Technology, Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and the Social Sciences. Additionally, THE publishes the 150 Under 50, ranking universities established in the past 50 years, US College Rankings, Asia University Rankings, Latin American Rankings, and BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings.

Times Higher Education’s top 10 from their World University Rankings:

1 University of Oxford (U.K.) (1)
2 University of Cambridge (U.K.) (4)
T-3 California Institute of Technology (U.S.) (2)
T-3 Stanford University (U.S.) (3)
5 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (U.S.) (5)
6 Harvard University (U.S.) (5)
7 Princeton University (U.S.) (7)
8 Imperial College London (U.K.) (8)
9 University of Chicago (U.S.) (9)
T-10 ETH Zurich — Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (Switzerland) (T-10)
T-10 University of Pennsylvania (U.S.) (13)

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store