The UK has improved its standing in the world university rankings, claiming four of the top six places and boosting its representation among the global top 100.
But a strong performance from Asian countries has prompted warnings that the UK's global success is at risk without greater investment to see off such "fierce competition".
The US' Harvard University remains top of the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings for the sixth year running. But the UK's University of Cambridge is now second, pushing Yale University into third place.
Fourth place is taken by University College London, up from seventh last year. Fifth place is shared by Imperial College London, up from sixth, and the University of Oxford, which has slipped from fourth spot last year.
"These rankings provide a useful indicator of the growing international dominance of the UK higher education sector," said Steve Smith, president of Universities UK.
"Despite fierce competition, the UK continues to punch well above its weight. We are second only to the US, which spends twice as much as we do as a proportion of national income, and we are closing the gap."
But he added: "It is clear that countries such as China will continue to invest heavily in their higher education systems, so we cannot presume that we will automatically maintain this leading position."
After Oxford and Imperial in fifth place, the next ten places in the table are filled by US institutions.
But the US' overall dominance of world higher education appears to be slipping: it has 32 universities in the top 100 this year, down from 37 last year.
Four US institutions have dropped out of the top 200, giving it a total of 54 that make the grade, down from 58 last year. The UK has 29 institutions in the top 200.
Japan has 11 institutions in the top 200, up from ten last year, and its representation in the top 100 has increased from four to six.
Hong Kong has five institutions in the top 200, up from four last year, including three in the top 50: the University of Hong Kong, up two places to 24th; Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, up four places to 35th; and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, down four places to 46th. City University of Hong Kong rose 23 places from 147th to 124th.
Mainland China has maintained its position, with six institutions in the top 200. South Korea also increased its representation in the full list, with four institutions included in the ranking compared with three last year. Its best-placed institution, Seoul National University, rose from joint 50th to joint 47th.
|World’s finest: an Anglo-American affair|
|2||University of Cambridge|
|4||University College London|
|%3D5||Imperial College London|
|%3D5||University of Oxford|
|7||University of Chicago|
|9||Massachusetts Institute of Technology|
|10||California Institute of Technology|
|Best by country|
|Australia||17th||Australian National University|
|Japan||22nd||University of Tokyo|
|Hong Kong||24th||University of Hong Kong|
|France||28th||Ecole Normale Superiéure, Paris|
|Singapore||30th||National University of Singapore|
|Ireland||%3D43rd||Trinity College Dublin|
|South Korea||%3D47th||Seoul National University|
|Netherlands||%3D49th||University of Amsterdam|
|Denmark||51st||University of Copenhagen|
|Germany||55th||Technical University of Munich|
|New Zealand||%3D61st||University of Auckland|
|Belgium||65th||Katholieke Universiteit Leuven|
|Taiwan||%3D95th||National Taiwan University|
|Norway||101st||University of Oslo|
|Israel||102nd||Hebrew University of Jerusalem|
Question of resources
In light of the results and ahead of the publication of the Government's Higher Education Framework, due this month, the mission groups representing the UK's research-intensive institutions warned that the sector needed more resources to remain competitive.
Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, said that "China and Korea, which are investing massively in their best institutions, are snapping at our heels. There is no mistaking the alarm bell warning that our success is at risk if we as a nation don't take action to fight off such fierce competition."
She said that the recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, Education at a Glance, confirms that the UK's rivals are "investing much more public and private money in higher education - with the UK below average in terms of total higher education investment as a proportion of gross domestic product".
"Following enormous investment, China has overtaken the UK in terms of total research publications. Japan and South Korea are investing hugely in their leading universities and, as this table indicates, it is starting to pay off," Dr Piatt added.
"If we allow ourselves to fall behind our international rivals, we will lose our ability to attract world-class academics, vital business investment and leading international students.
"League-table bragging rights would be the least of our worries."
Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, said: "The Government must target policy and funding so that leading UK universities can continue to compete with the world's best. It must not spread resources so thinly that we risk damaging our world-class research-intensive universities."
In the UK, the University of Edinburgh jumped into the top 20 for the first time, from 23rd last year to joint 20th.
Excluding the UK, Europe has 21 institutions in the top 100, up from 19 in 2008. ETH Zurich is the highest-placed institution.
Germany, in particular, saw improvements, with the University of Karlsruhe making it into the top 200 (184th). Germany's best-placed institution, the Technical University of Munich, rose from 78th to joint 55th.
Norway (with two institutions in the top 200), Sweden (with five) and Russia (with two) all improved their representation.
The highest-placed institution outside the US and UK was the Australian National University, which slipped from 16th to 17th. Australia held its own in the rankings, with eight universities in the top 100 compared with seven last year.
Canada's highest-placed institution, McGill University, took 18th position, up two places from last year. In general, Canada saw a decline in its standing, with a drop from 12 to 11 institutions.
The UK's strong performance was celebrated by Higher Education Minister David Lammy. Writing in the special rankings supplement in this issue of Times Higher Education (see centre pages), Mr Lammy points out that the UK undertakes 5 per cent of the world's scientific research with only 1 per cent of the world's population, "produces more publications and citations per researcher and per pound of public funding than any of our major competitors", and attracts almost 12 per cent of all overseas students.
Pat Killingley, the British Council's director of higher education, said that the rankings will "help us to continue to attract fresh talent to UK education". She added that the growing importance of collaboration meant that rising Asian stars "should be viewed more as potential partners than as rivals".
WISE APPROACH TO 'GRAND CHALLENGES' TAKES UCL UP THE CHART
By any standard, its rise has been meteoric.
In 2004, in the first edition of our world rankings, University College London was placed 34th. In subsequent rankings it rose to 25th, ninth and then seventh last year. Now UCL is ranked fourth in the world.
The secret of its success, according to David Price, UCL's vice-provost for research, is its concerted drive to "create wisdom out of the knowledge we're generating".
It has world-class research across a wide range of disciplines, notably architecture, computer science, economics, law, medicine and philosophy.
But the university has also placed an emphasis on getting staff to work across disciplines to tackle some of the world's most pressing problems.
UCL is focusing its efforts on four "grand challenges": global health; sustainable cities; intercultural interaction; and human wellbeing.
"The idea is that by meeting the challenges from across disciplines, you make a greater impact than any one discipline could on its own," Professor Price said.
In May, UCL launched a 20-author report on the global health impact of climate change, which fed into the Commonwealth Health Ministers' Meeting on health and climate change in Switzerland.
Such activities have played a big role in raising the university's international reputation, a key measure in the rankings, and in helping it earn more research citations. This activity was stepped up this week as UCL announced a "transatlantic healthcare alliance" with Yale University.
The university's research performance has also been enhanced by success in winning grants from the UK's research councils.
Last month, analysis by Times Higher Education revealed that UCL academics picked up more research grants - 174, worth a total of £81 million - than any other British institution.
A key reason for this success is that the university has employed a number of "co-ordinating staff", whose role is "not to generate research outputs, but to enable researchers to have the time and resources they need" to get on with the job free from bureaucracy.
"We have 4,000 research staff," Professor Price said. "We don't need too many more professors, but we do need to provide them with the time to think and to be brilliant."