Times Higher Education's 2011-12 World University Rankings, published today, are again dominated by the US, which places 75 universities among the Top 200. But for the first time since our rankings began in 2004, the top spot is not occupied by Harvard University. Instead, the 375-year-old behemoth has relinquished first place to a young upstart, the California Institute of Technology, whose success can be attributed to its consistent results across all indicators and its attracting 16 per cent more research funding than it did the previous year. Harvard must content itself with sharing second place with Stanford University.
It is really no surprise that the US performs so well: spending more than anyone else on its universities - 2.7 per cent of gross domestic product - it gets a system that many other nations, the UK among them, aspire to emulate.
US success in the rankings owes much to the country's vast size and economic power. But a rather different picture of the strength of university systems emerges if the results are adjusted for population and spending on higher education. Divide the number of a country's top universities by its population and the US falls to 14th place. On this per capita measure, the best performers, Switzerland (seven universities in the top 200) and the Netherlands (12 universities), are way ahead.
A value-for-money comparison is even more intriguing. The UK is already a rankings star: 32 of its names grace the Top 200; put another way, about a third of its institutions sit among the world's top 1 per cent. In terms of Top 200 representatives, the UK has almost three times as many as Germany, more than four times as many as Australia and more than six times as many as Japan.
All this it achieves while spending 1.2 per cent of its GDP on higher education, less than the 1.5 per cent average across countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and well below that of the US, Australia and Japan. (Even lower is its public investment in higher education, just 0.6 per cent of GDP, one of the lowest in all the OECD.) But in terms of performance per billion spent on higher education, the UK comes second only to Switzerland, while the US trails in 16th place.
Incontrovertibly, the UK has a superbly efficient higher education system, and one that the government meddles with at its peril. The road ahead is uncertain. Immigration policy poses a serious problem. There is no clear sense of the future for postgraduate study even before the rise in undergraduate tuition fees can show any effect on choices of advanced study. In fact, there is in the government no guiding philosophy for higher education at all beyond the idea of a market, driven by consumer choice and business needs, while thinking about research stops at "impact".
Consultation on the proposals for the most radical reform of higher education in a generation has just closed. A vision for research is due by year's end, and a legislative programme will follow soon. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, rejects the notion that his government is "doing some eccentric experiment and going American"; he claims the sector will be 10 per cent better off financially by the end of this Parliament. Critics, however, are queuing to tell him that his changes are too many, too hasty and too haphazard. The rankings show that the UK has a system to be lauded and cherished. The minister would do well to pay heed.