For the first time in 7 years, the UK has beaten America to top the prestigious QS International University League Table. Cambridge University toppled Harvard from the top spot, which it had occupied unchallenged for the past 6 years. However, celebration of this great academic achievement may be short-lived, as it has already been marred by bleak predictions that the new tuition fees scheme and higher education shake-up is likely swiftly to downgrade the UK’s global academic standing.
On the surface, the publication of the table was a triumph for the UK; as well as Cambridge, Oxford University, University College London and Imperial College London all made it into the elite top ten. 31 UK universities altogether appear in the top 200 places in the table; a strong academic showing on the international stage.
However, Ben Sowter, head researcher at QS, who compiled the table, had a worrying warning for UK higher education. Explaining in detail the assessment criteria used to compile the table, he showed that it was “inevitable” that the new higher education system would immediately have a strong negative effect on the performance of UK universities in future tables. Aspects such as research capability, reputation and staff to student ratio would all be affected by the new tuition fees and funding schemes, Sowter said, forcing UK institutions below their international competitors.
In one example, Sowter demonstrated that the less advantageous staff to student ratio already produced by redundancies and cuts as a result of the government withdrawal of state education funding would even today cause a staggering 34 of the 37 UK institutions in the top 300 of the list to drop to lower places in the table.
It seems that the critics who have warned again and again of the likely negative results of the new scheme for UK universities have not had to wait long for the first evidence in support of their argument to emerge. Even the Russell Group of elite universities, which has generally been supportive of the move to higher tuition fees, released a statement in light of the statistics, urging the government to “recognise the importance of world-class research-intensive universities” to future prosperity.
A further blow to UK universities came when other statistics from QS revealed that several universities in the Netherlands provided better value for money for UK students than institutions at home.
Meanwhile, Sowter’s warnings were echoed this week by Peter Scott, Professor of Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education. He too suggested that the new higher education financial regime would have grim repercussions for UK universities, claiming that it not only represented a “betrayal of individuals and communities”, but would also have “a chilling effect on research”, with the UK no longer able to compete with other academic institutions on the world stage.