The University fell to its lowest position in the global league table since 2014Louis Ashworth

The University of Cambridge has fallen to 6th place in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2021, its lowest position since 2014, as UK universities continue to slip in the international league table.

While Oxford retained its top spot on the league table for the fifth consecutive year, Cambridge fell three rankings from 3rd in 2020 to 6th place this year.

The rankings are intended to “underline the shifting strength of higher education and research around the world”, a press release to Varsity detailed, with the methodology particularly focusing on the research capacity and influence of higher education institutions.

The league table, which compiles data on 1527 universities from 93 countries and regions, uses a methodology that considers 13 ‘performance indicators’ across weighted categories of teaching, research, citations, international outlook and industry income.

Teaching, research and citations are the most heavily weighted , with each of these categories accounting for a third of an institutions total score.

Cambridge scored a total of 94.0 in the 2021 rankings compared to a score of 94.4 in the 2020 rankings.

The University scored 1.1 lower in the teaching category and 0.2 lower in the citations category but marginally improved its score in both the research and international outlook categories.

However, the category which appears most culpable for Cambridge's fall in the league table this year is the University's score in the industry income category, which dropped by over 6 points. This drop suggests that the "extent to which businesses are willing to pay for research" by Cambridge and the University's "ability to attract funding in the commercial marketplace" has taken a hit this year. 

Cambridge is not the only UK university which struggled to perform in this years league table. Imperial for the first time in a decade dropped out of the top 10 to 11th in the rankings.

Although the number of UK universities in the top 100 remained unchanged compared to the 2020 rankings, only 5 of the UK’s 20 highest ranked institutions from 2020 improved their position in the 2021 table and UK universities outside of the top 200 continued to decline.

Despite the falling position of many UK universities, the UK still has the second highest level of representation in the top 200, with 29 institutions included in the rankings.

In comparison to UK institutions, the position of Asian universities notably improved this year, with 16 Asian universities ranking in the top 100, the highest total for Asia since the rankings began.

Moreover, for the first time an Asian institution, China’s Tsinghua University, entered the top 20 and, compared to last year, China has doubled the number of its universities in the top 100.

A THE press release described the compounding effect of Covid-19 as a “perfect storm” for UK universities, as surveys conducted earlier in the year revealed the reinforcing effect of Covid-19 on the existing challenges facing UK and US universities.

The “slow shift” in favour of Asian institutions was described by Chief Knowledge Officer at the THE, Phil Baty, as a trend which is “likely to accelerate further” as Covid-19 presents the “very real risk” of UK universities “losing significant international student talent, and the huge amount of income that they bring.”

He continues: “While the universities at the very top of the table, with long histories of success and prestige, will prove hard to unseat, these factors, combined with the effects of a possible deep and long-lasting global recession and its likely impact on university funding levels, could herald the start a dramatic re-balancing of the global knowledge economy.”

Perhaps most worrying was the common belief among UK and US university leaders that the impact of Covid-19 is likely to result in institutions going bankrupt. 81% of UK and 92% of US university leaders agreed with this proposition compared to 7% of Japanese leaders and 0% of Chinese leaders.

The 2021 rankings show that the UK is particularly at risk if institutions fail to secure international students fees because 25 of the UK’s 29 universities in the top 200 have low overall institutional income and very high numbers of international students compared to their global counterparts.


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The THE rankings follow an Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report released in July which estimated losses for UK universities could range anywhere between £3 billion and £19 billion for the upcoming academic year as a result of Covid-19.

The report found the biggest financial losses will likely stem from falls in international student enrollment and rising deficits in university-sponsored pension schemes. The IFS also warned that thirteen universities face “a very real prospect” of insolvency unless there is a government bailout.

The release of the THE rankings comes as the University begins to welcome back students for the academic year with particular concerns being raised about the arrangements for international students upon their arrival in Cambridge and the possibility of a second wave.

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