Cambridge received a score of 94.3 across the tables criteriaLouis Ashworth

The University of Cambridge has retained its position as the seventh highest ranked university in the world according to the 2021 QS World University Rankings, as UK universities suffer their worst-ever performance in the international league table. 

The table, compiled by data and research group Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), is one of the most widely cited international university league tables in the world. It uses a methodology comprising the categories of employer and academic reputation, class size, research output and international and domestic student numbers. 

Cambridge was given an overall score of 94.3 across these categories. It was ranked as the second best university in the UK, beaten only by Oxford which had an overall score of 96.7 and occupied fifth place in the rankings, down from fourth last year.

Cambridge’s position in the QS World University Rankings has consistently slipped since 2012, when it ranked second internationally. From 2015-2020 it fell in consecutive years from second to seventh place.

By contrast, Oxford has climbed the rankings in recent years, from sixth place in 2016 to fourth place in the 2020 rankings, only to fall to fifth place again in 2021. 

Three quarters of UK universities, including many from the Russell Group, slipped in this year’s rankings making this the UK’s worst-ever performance in the well-regarded league table. Imperial College London was the only UK university in the top 20 to improve its position this year, as it climbed from the ninth to eighth spot. 

The researchers behind the league table attributed the slump from UK universities’ to poorer teaching and declining research impact, as well as decreasing numbers of international students and increasing investment in higher education elsewhere in the world.

Ben Sowter, Director of Research as QS, stated that “lower rankings in the UK mirror those in North American and European countries”. He suggested that “investment in teaching capacity would serve the British higher education sector well, and help it to regain lost ground”. 


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Concerns have also been raised about UK universities’ declining global competitiveness and attractiveness to international students. According to the data compiled, the number of international students enrolling on courses in the UK has fallen at 51 universities. 

Sowler noted that the UK's performance reflects “the increasing competitiveness of the global higher education landscape”.

The performance of Asian universities improved notably this year, something attributed to increased investment in higher education throughout the region. 

These concerns also follow predictions that some universities will lose more than £100m due to international students cancelling their studies in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

In April, the University outlined proposals to alter its teaching provision due to the impact of the pandemic.