UK is standing strong, not clinging on 1

September 23, 2010

The latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings based on new methodology have attracted much attention since being published last week.

Regrettably, some of the headlines and interpretation have been greatly at variance with the data. THE itself ("'Reality check': the UK clings on to second place in global league, but experts warn of limits to doing more with less", 16 September) refers to the UK as "clinging on to second place" while a headline in a UK national newspaper stated that the "UK does badly with only 3 in the top 10".

In fact, far from clinging on, or doing badly, the UK has done remarkably well. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College London are in the top 10, and the gap between the UK in second place globally (29 institutions in the top 200) and Germany in third (none in the top 40, 14 in the top 200) is considerable.

Similarly, interpretation of funding level and ranking has been highly questionable. The UK spend on higher education, at 1.3 per cent of gross domestic product, is just below the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average of 1.5 per cent and above that of third-placed Germany, at 1.1 per cent. It is the comparison with the US, at 3.1 per cent of GDP, that makes the UK appear weak and is the focus of much discussion. But the US has a population approximately five times that of the UK and, correspondingly, many more institutions. On that basis alone, one might have expected the US to do even better than it actually does relative to the UK.

I take two major messages from the new THE World University Rankings. The UK indeed continues to be exceptionally strong (though there are difficult times ahead), but unfortunately parts of the higher education sector have difficulty in the dispassionate analysis of data. A further message for the UK is that six of the seven US institutions in the top 10 are private (not-for profit) bodies.

Paul Trayhurn, Emeritus professor, University of Liverpool Honorary professor, University of Buckingham.

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