The simultaneous publication of the Higher Education Policy Institute's report on academic mobility and the beginning of our second round of world rankings suggests that UK universities are in better shape than the critics might like to admit. Even Hepi itself describes its subject as the brain drain, but the evidence turns out to be more about imports than exports. And, in science at least, our rankings confirm last year's verdict that academics from all over the globe still rate Cambridge and Oxford (in that order) as the world's leading universities.
Eyebrows were raised and aspersions cast when Oxbridge fared so well in the first science ranking. Sceptics abroad accused us of manipulating the data to favour UK universities (even though all the other rankings were headed by US institutions). And even some closer to home found it inconceivable that anyone could compete with the sustained excellence that plentiful dollars produce on the other side of the Atlantic. Yet a much larger sample of academics, weighted by subject and drawn from around the world, in this year's poll continued to think otherwise and the Hepi report also shows that the UK remains a favoured destination for high-fliers. The ten UK universities in our top 100 for science are outnumbered by their rivals in Germany as well as the US, but the reputation of Oxbridge endures.
A ranking based on citations would not have produced the same results.
Almost 20 universities - nearly all of them American - would have outscored Cambridge. But peer review should give a more immediate picture of the higher education world, especially when it is restricted to experts in the field who have been chosen to reflect geographical diversity. The coming weeks will show whether UK performance is as strong in other disciplines - it is not in engineering and information technology. But the Hepi survey leaves room for optimism about the international standing of research universities more widely. Many of the ambitious young British researchers who emigrate to further their careers return in later life. And their counterparts elsewhere, especially in continental Europe, see working in UK universities as an attractive proposition. The challenge for ministers and higher education leaders is to create the conditions that will improve an already vibrant research culture. In the straitened circumstances of next year's spending review, that may be no small task, but this week's evidence shows that it is far from the lost cause that the doom-mongers portray.