The high levels of academic freedom, financial independence and decentralised admissions procedures in England are highlighted in an international study of institutional autonomy published this week by the European University Association.
The report, University Autonomy in Europe, compares 26 countries, assessing freedom in four areas: governance, finance, employment practices and academic matters.
Each country is scored in each area, with England the only nation to achieve a top-three finish in every category. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not considered in the study.
Estonia, Finland, Denmark and Ireland also score well in several categories, while the highly centralised systems in France and Greece are bottom for both academic freedom and staff autonomy.
The freedom of individual English universities to choose their vice-chancellors and governing board, set staff salaries, manage their finances and create new courses without the approval of ministers or civil servants are cited as examples of strong autonomy.
However, the current government-imposed £3,375 tuition fee cap for domestic students, combined with student number controls, causes the UK to lose financial autonomy points and slip behind Luxembourg and Estonia in the rankings. The fee cap is set to rise to £9,000 next year, and does not apply to students from outside the European Union.
The status of academics in Greece and France as civil servants underpins heavy state involvement in staffing and finance matters in their universities, the report notes, resulting in poor autonomy scores.
Thomas Estermann, head of the EUA's governance, autonomy and funding unit and one of the report's authors, told Times Higher Education that studies have shown a "correlation between autonomy and excellence in terms of world rankings and league tables.
"But our aim was not to make this connection. Low levels of autonomy do not necessarily mean a bad higher education system. Other factors such as funding make a huge difference," he said. "We are aware that our [scorecard] approach is provocative, but we wanted countries to look outside their own borders [at what others are doing]."
The scorecard, which follows the EUA's first autonomy report in 2009, is designed to stimulate discussion about "how free academics are" and encourage the reduction of red tape.
However, Mr Estermann said that "autonomy does not mean the absence of regulations".
"Universities accept the challenges of working in a competitive global environment, but to do so they need the necessary managerial freedom, light and supportive regulatory frameworks, and sufficient financing. Otherwise they will be placed at a disadvantage."
The EUA report recommends that governments allow all universities to retain financial surpluses and introduce longer funding cycles, which will improve their capacity for long-term planning. Institutions should be allowed to set their employees' salaries to attract top international talent, it adds.