A study by Universitas 21, a “leading global network of research universities”, has revealed that the UK comes in at a disappointing 10th place out of 48 countries whose higher education systems were ranked. The statistics provide a stark warning about the potential damage government cuts could have to UK universities, which perform extremely highly in the sections measuring their actual academic output, but were let down by dismally low state funding in another section of the study.

The project ranked the 48 universities from around the world in four different areas: resources, environment, connectivity and output. The UK performed exceptionally well in the output section, which measured the production of top academic journal articles and other research published by higher education institutions. Indeed, the report declares that “The United States and the United Kingdom have the world’s top universities.” But in the resources section, which looked at government funding of higher education, the UK plummeted to a shocking 27th place in the rankings.

It was largely this discrepancy that led to the UK’s disappointing overall placing at 10th best for higher education globally. This raises important questions about the impact of the government cuts to higher education and the new tuition fees plan, not only on the quality of UK universities themselves, but also on their global reputation. This study seems to show that the UK higher education system is actually coping very well with the new financial regime, as output remains exceptionally high (though of course it is very early to look for any real impact yet). But the severity of the recent government cuts is still enough to shake international confidence in our universities so severely that we have plummeted down the rankings in spite of this excellent performance.

This might not seem important – why, you might ask, does it matter how the cuts affect global opinion as long as UK universities actually continue to perform so highly? Well in fact, it matters very much indeed, as a significant amount of UK higher education funding is reliant upon the huge numbers of foreign students who flock to study here. The Universitas 21 study itself revealed that out of the 48 countries surveyed, the UK has the fourth highest proportion of international students. Given the enormous importance of ranking and reputation in the fiercely competitive global world of higher education, it could almost be argued that the reputation of a country’s higher education system is almost more important than the quality of the universities themselves. This may sound like a wildly exaggerated idea, but it is not difficult to imagine a foreign student choosing to attend a slightly lower-performing university in the United States, for example, because of the international reputation of American universities in general, than a university in a country not known for its higher education system, even though that university itself might actually provide a better education.

There is also, of course, the very real risk of the slippery slope effect. If global higher education rankings like these continue to shake the confidence of foreign students in UK universities, the subsequent loss of funding from those students’ fees will lead to an inevitable reduction in the quality of those UK universities, creating something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have been warned.