Brexit ‘threatens London’s lead as global HE destination’

Analysis of university-city performance shows UK’s capital has a lot to lose if EU exit is botched

September 6, 2017
EU banner outside Parliament
Source: Getty

Boston, London, Paris, Hong Kong, Melbourne: these are just a few cities that might spring to mind when thinking of the world’s most prominent destinations for higher education. Indeed, they all featured in a Times Higher Education analysis of cities with the biggest concentration of top-ranked institutions published earlier this year.

But when it comes to these urban clusters of universities, which ones perform best in terms of research, teaching, links with industry and, perhaps the key advantage they possess as global cities, attracting students and staff?

A new THE analysis drawing on fresh data from the World University Rankings 2018 shows that London heads the field both in terms of the number of highly ranked universities and its performance as an international higher education hub.



Top urban areas for number of universities in the top 500 of THE World University Rankings 2018

Urban area

Number of universities in top 500













English Midlands


Hong Kong






However, the results also reveal that London trails cities in the US, Asia and other parts of Europe on just about every other measure of university performance. Perhaps most worryingly for institutions in the UK’s capital, given the threat that Brexit could hamper London’s ability to attract staff and students, other cities are also catching up fast on internationalisation.

The analysis looked at 16 metropolitan areas that had at least five institutions in the top 500 of the World University Rankings. Along with the well-known global cities mentioned above, the list also includes clusters of highly ranked universities spread across two or more cities within close proximity, such as Washington DC and Baltimore in the US, or Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht in the Netherlands (labelled Holland-Utrecht after the provinces in which the cities are located).

Comparing these urban clusters of universities on the five “pillars” that make up the 2018 rankings shows that UK city clusters, and not just London, lead the world on international outlook, a measure of global research collaboration and the ability to attract students and staff from abroad. However, close behind are Hong Kong and the Australian cities of Sydney and Melbourne, while other European urban areas also perform strongly.


Average scores for cities on five ranking pillars
THE DataPoints

For US city clusters, like institutions generally in the country, international outlook is their weakest suit. However, they perform much more strongly on how often their research is cited, a measure of quality that carries a high weighting in the final overall ranking score. On this, Boston is the leading city, with an average citation impact score of 92.4 out of 100, while New York-New Jersey and Washington-Baltimore also do well.

Outside the US, it is not London but other European city clusters that are rivalling the US on citations. Holland-Utrecht comes second, behind only Boston, while city clusters in Sweden, Denmark and Belgium also post high scores.

London is way down the list for the teaching, research and industry income pillars of the rankings. On teaching, US cities again lead, followed by cities in East Asia. On research, continental European cities dominate. For industry links, however, it is Seoul that is top.

A close look at the metrics informing the international outlook pillar suggests that cities that have traditionally fared less well in attracting students and staff from overseas – and on cross-border research work – are making fast progress.

On average, universities in the Seoul cluster boosted their scores on shares of international students by seven points compared with last year’s rankings, while on international staff the city’s institutions recorded an average increase of almost five points. Urban clusters in the US also saw relatively strong improvement in their international metric scores, although like Seoul they are starting from a lower position than places in the UK and continental Europe.

Average change in metric score, 2017 to 2018
THE DataPoints

Perhaps most worrying for London – whose performance on the internationalisation measure was relatively static compared with last year – is that other city clusters in Europe that already score highly on other rankings pillars are now improving on global outlook.

The Holland-Utrecht area, which includes five institutions in the top 100 of the World University Rankings, saw its average scores for international staff and students both rise significantly.

Karl Dittrich, president of the VSNU association of Dutch research universities, said that the country’s institutions had been pursuing a strategy of internationalising both the student body and the academic workforce, and that this was now paying dividends.

On staff, he said: “We all know that we are in a global competition for talent, and the Dutch universities try to be as attractive an employer as possible.” There are special tax benefits on offer in the Netherlands for “international talent”, he pointed out. “We do hope that, in cooperation with the government, we will be able to continue to be an attractive employer for research talent worldwide.”

Such moves are sure to raise concerns for London universities that rivals are waiting in the wings should Brexit be a disaster for higher education.

London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, said the fact the city had the highest concentration of top-ranked universities in the world demonstrated how it had built its success generally on being “open to talent, enterprise and innovation”.

“However, in an increasingly competitive world and with the challenges posed by Brexit, we must ensure that our universities continue to be the first choice for international students and talented academics and for research collaborations,” he added.

Michael Arthur, president and provost of University College London, said that THE’s analysis demonstrated that “London’s universities are in a position of real strength to withstand the challenges of Brexit, but on condition that the right things are done”.

He added that although European Union academics were mainly staying put for now, they were “worried and uncertain about the future”, and he warned that “many have been approached to move elsewhere”. 

“We simply can’t be complacent – as demonstrated by the fact that other world cities are gaining on us fast.”

However, others pointed out that London possessed many advantages as a global higher education destination that would not evaporate overnight, such as the use of English and centres for research collaboration like the Francis Crick Institute.

William Locke, director of the Centre for Higher Education Studies at the UCL Institute of Education, said that London could be well placed to benefit if there was an “officially sanctioned boom” in overseas student recruitment following the recent official review of UK immigration statistics, especially since students from the rest of EU might pay higher tuition fees in future.

Meanwhile, Philip Altbach, research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said that although cities in Asia were becoming more attractive to academics and students, they faced an uphill task given the cultural draw of places such as London, Paris or Boston.

“These cities…are attractive to students as places to study because of their cosmopolitan nature, the languages spoken and other cultural reasons. The challenge for cities like Seoul is to be put on the map in the same way,” he said, although he pointed out that Hong Kong might be well placed to compete given its position as a global melting pot where English is widely spoken.


Print headline: Brexit poses threat to London’s pull on international stage

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