Today's result makes Oxford the first UK university to top the THE rankingsTejvan Pettinger

The University of Oxford has become the first UK university to top the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, surpassing the California Institute of Technology after its five consecutive years on top.

Meanwhile, Cambridge has remained at fourth, the same position it occupied last year. A University spokesperson said that the rankings “reflect the fact that the University is among a small group of the most respected and influential higher education institutions in the world”.

Phil Baty, the editor of THE World University Rankings, said that Oxford’s success was a “great result for the UK higher education sector” which “cements its position as one of the greatest university nations in the world”.

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Professor Louise Richardson, said: “This wonderful news recognises the extraordinary talent and dedication of all who work and study at Oxford. We are delighted with this affirmation of our global success and will be working hard to maintain our position.”

THE’s is the last of the major ranking tables to come out this year. Looking across the three, Oxford's position in the THE is anomalous, whereas Cambridge’s lower position demonstrates an unusual consensus between tables with substantially different methodologies.

 Rank THE ARWU (Shanghai)        QS                
1 Oxford Harvard MIT
2 Caltech Stanford Stanford
3 Stanford Berkeley Harvard
4 Cambridge Cambridge Cambridge
5 MIT MIT Caltech
6 Harvard Princeton Oxford
7 Princeton Oxford UCL

The methodology of each table puts more or less emphasis on the different factors of which the general score is composed. The last UK university to top one of the three major international ranking tables was Cambridge, when it came first in the 2011/12 QS World University Rankings. The QS rankings have always looked favourably upon Cambridge, which has never failed to manage a top four finish.

However, the QS rankings have been criticised for allocating undue weight to subjective indicators, with labour economist David Blanchflower labelling them “baloney” that “underweights the quality of research and overweights fluff”.

On the other hand, the Shanghai table – which also put Cambridge ahead of Oxford this year – has drawn some criticism for focussing too much on raw research power and therefore marginalising its consideration of the humanities.

For its part, The Times Higher Education World University Rankings have been commended since the introduction of a new methodology, but are still criticised for overvaluing institutions that teach ‘hard sciences’. Commentators have argued that universities like the LSE or France’s Sciences Po are unfairly penalised despite ranking well in national tables. They are also said to overemphasise citations, which is said to unfairly disadvantage universities which do not use English as their primary language.

This makes another trend in this years’ tables more surprising: European universities have seen a mild decline in the THE while Asia has continued its ascent. Six European institutions have fallen out of the top 200 while Asia had four new entries. China’s Peking University moved to 29th from 42nd and the Asia’s top university, the National University of Singapore, came in at 24th – its highest ever rank.

Overall, 289 Asian universities from 24 countries made the ranking and an elite 19 land landed in the top 200. The Shanghai Rankings earlier this year also saw universities in China and Singapore enter the top 100 for the first time, with China’s Tsinghua in 58th place.

THE rankings editor Phil Baty noted: “Europe's success in the ranking cannot be guaranteed in the long-term while more of Asia's leading universities soar to join the world elite.”

The UK saw a small decline in its share of top universities despite Oxford’s success. 32 British universities featured in the top 200, two fewer than last year. However, Imperial College maintained its position as a third UK university in the top 10, appearing at eighth.

Phil Baty noted that this may be cause for concern given the potential damage of Brexit to the education sector. A THE survey conducted before the referendum found that 40 per cent of university staff said they would be more likely to leave the country in the event of a Brexit, and a survey earlier this year by Hobsons revealed that 30 per cent of international students are not likely to come to the UK as a result of the referendum.

"The UK must ensure that it limits the damage to academics, students, universities and science during its Brexit negotiations, to ensure that the UK remains one of the world leaders in higher education”, said Baty.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings claim to be the only global performance tables that judge research intensive universities across all their core missions - teaching, research, knowledge transfer, and international outlook. They use 13 calibrated performance indicators and their calculations are subject to an independent audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers.