The UK and Switzerland have the best-value higher education systems in the world while the US languishes in 16th place, according to analysis of the 2011-12 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
The rankings, unveiled today, also spring a surprise at the top, where Harvard University is dethroned by the California Institute of Technology. Caltech snatches first place thanks mainly to a 16 per cent rise in research funding.
In terms of overall number of institutions in the top 200, the US leads the way with 75, followed by the UK (32), Germany (12), the Netherlands (12) and Canada (9).
But when that table is adjusted for national spending on higher education, Switzerland has the most universities in the top 200 per billion dollars spent, followed by the UK in second place and the Netherlands in third. The US finishes 16th by this measure (see graph below).
Critics of the higher education reforms in England, where the bulk of public funding is being replaced with private investment in the form of higher tuition fees, see the rankings as a warning against any shift to a marketised US model.
Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history at the University of Oxford, who has become a prominent critic of the government's higher education policy, said: "You can turn the data from the World University Rankings upside down and inside out...to measure different things; but the end results are more or less the same.
"Several small and prosperous countries - notably the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark - do best in per capita terms; the UK comes at or near the top of the value-for-money table; and Switzerland does exceptionally well across the board.
"The US, by contrast, offers unimpressive performance in per capita terms and very poor value for money." He added: "Although many of the world's very best universities are private, all the world's best university systems are public...All this puts a fresh onus on the UK minister for universities and science - and on his counterparts in other countries - to provide equally clear and compelling evidence to justify radical market-driven reforms."
Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK, said the rankings show the UK higher education sector "continuing to lead internationally".
"We must ensure that investment in all our universities is maintained so that we can maintain this global competitiveness and ensure that our universities can continue to help boost the UK economy," he said.
Gareth Thomas, the shadow universities and science minister, said the rankings were "proof of the continuing strength of British universities".
"But many people will therefore worry about the impact of what are unfair and unnecessary changes to higher education (in England) being introduced by the current government," he said.
David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said: "I welcome the way the Times Higher Education (World University Rankings) is also trying to measure teaching and recognising that that's a crucial part of the university experience." He argued that the government's changes would apply the strengths of the competitive research funding model to teaching, and would increase overall funding while retaining some public investment through student loans, with 30 per cent of their value written off by the government.
There is "certainly a lot of interest across Europe in what we are doing," Mr Willetts added.
He rejected the notion that the UK was "doing some eccentric experiment and going American, contrasting with the Continent", arguing that fees are in place at some leading French institutions without any equivalent of the "universalist" UK student loan system.
Many US public universities - notably those in California - have slipped in the rankings as funding falls amid state budget crises.
But Bruce Johnstone, emeritus professor of higher and comparative education at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, predicted that the US would remain globally dominant.
"The bottom line is the US gives a tremendous amount of money to higher education because of the combination of taxpayer revenue, tuition revenue and philanthropic revenue," he said.
Professor Johnstone highlighted philanthropy as an income source not available to competitor nations.
If higher education is seen "as the responsibility of the taxpayer, it is pretty hard to get philanthropists to think otherwise, except in a handful of vastly wealthy oil states", he said. Creating a culture of giving to public universities "probably takes two decades", he argued.
Don Heller, professor of education and senior scientist at Pennsylvania State University, said it would "take a number of years of downturn" to damage the research reputation of US universities.
"Most of the research funding in the US comes from the federal government. That hasn't been cut and has gone up a bit, in comparison to general funding from the states."
TOP 10 UNIVERSITIES
Rank / Institution
1. California Institute of Technology
=2. Harvard University
=2. Stanford University
4. University of Oxford
5. Princeton University
6. University of Cambridge
7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
8. Imperial College London
9. University of Chicago
10. University of California, Berkeley
Shop around: excellence doesn't have to cost the earth
The US may dominate the 2011-12 Times Higher Education World University Rankings in terms of the total number of institutions in the top 200, but an analysis of tuition fees shows that the country lags far behind other nations in affordability.
Measured by international student fees, the US accounts for two- thirds of the 100 most expensive institutions.
Students could pay up to $44,754 (£29,114) a year, for example, to study at the 197th-ranked Georgia Health Sciences University.
Others charging among the highest fees include Columbia University ($45,290), Tufts University ($44,017) and Carnegie Mellon University ($43,160).
One of the most expensive institutions outside the US is Imperial College London, which charges international students annual fees averaging $37,706.
At the other end of the cost spectrum, students could study for free at the 32nd-ranked Karolinska Institute in Sweden under the fees regime in place in the past academic year.
However, that will change this year following a decision by the Swedish government to allow universities to charge fees to students from outside the European Union.
Explaining the move on its website, the Swedish Institute, the government's information agency, says: "The government wants to use some of the money that today finances foreign students' fees to award institutions that have shown particular excellence." The decision reflects a growing trend.
Of the European countries represented in the top 200, only Norway still maintains a policy of free higher education for all. But several nations, including Denmark, Finland and Sweden, continue to refrain from charging domestic students.
So which institution in the top 200 boasts the best value for a student's money? One that has a strong claim is the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.
The institution, which is ranked 15th in the world, is one of the cheapest universities for international students, with an average annual fee of just $789. It offers similarly good value in terms of fees for domestic students.