British universities are the biggest winners in The Times Higher 's 2005 World University Rankings, published this week.
Harvard University is again the world's top institution, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology number two in the rankings, which gauge the views of academics from across the world. But Cambridge and Oxford universities come in third and fourth places, up from sixth and fifth respectively last year, as part of a general increase in the standing of UK institutions.
A number of UK universities fare particularly well in the latest rankings.
The London School of Economics and Imperial College London remain in the top 20, while strong climbers include University College London, up from 34 to 28; Edinburgh, up from 48 to 30; Bristol, up from 91 to 49; Durham up from 128 to 83; and Nottingham, up 73 places to 97.
The UK is home to 24 of the top 200 universities, second only to the US with 54 and ahead of Australia, in third place with 17.
A Cambridge spokesperson said the university was pleased to have done well in a ranking that measures both teaching and research.
John Hood, vice-chancellor of Oxford, said: "Our place among the handful of truly world-class universities is testament to the quality and the drive of the members of the university."
The UK's success contrasts with the rankings of other European universities. The Ecole Polytechnique in France is the only other European university in the top 20.
The Netherlands is continental Europe's top higher education nation, with ten universities in the top 200, ahead of France and Germany with nine each.
The results come as Prime Minister Tony Blair this week warned the European Parliament that Europe's universities were lagging behind US institutions, while China and India were developing their sectors. Mr Blair said: "Our proposal is that we task the [European] Commission on coming back and reporting to the European Council next year on the challenge facing European universities, how we compete with the US."
The rankings use the results of a survey of 2,375 academics from across the world. These are combined with a series of measures including the number of times that research papers are cited by academics, staff-to-student ratios and number of students and staff from overseas.
This year's analysis includes for the first time a measure based on the views of international employers on which universities they prefer to recruit from.
The world's top 200 universities are in 31 countries. All but two are in Europe, Australasia, the US or Canada. The exceptions are the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Sio Paulo in Brazil. No African university made the top 200, and only two Russian universities feature from Eastern Europe.
Richard Lambert, who argued in favour of university rankings in his 2003 UK government report on business links with universities, said: "These results reflect well on the UK but I would not want them to be a cause for complacency.
"The UK's selective research funding means that the top ten universities get a bigger share of the cash than in any other European country. But countries such as Germany have recognised the problem and are planning to channel extra cash to their elite universities."
- Go to The Times Higher World University Rankings 2005