That most highly respected and anticipated measure of academic institutions, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, was published this week, creating considerable commotion in higher education circles. The reason for the rumpus was the toppling of academic giant Harvard University from the top of the rankings, a place it has smugly occupied without challenge for the past eight years. Even more exciting was the upstart nature of its challenger – in true David and Goliath fashion it was the small, modern California Institute of Technology (or ‘Caltech’) that darted in to leave Harvard licking its wounds in joint second place.

Affectionately dubbed an “upstart” by Phil Baty, editor of the rankings, Caltech’s excellent teaching standards, investment in research and specific subject focus are credited with its meteoric rise.
Meanwhile the rankings hold important information for the UK higher education sector, poised as it is on the brink of dramatic organisational and financial reform. The UK performs extremely admirably in the table; firmly holding on to its title as second most represented country with 23 universities in the top 200. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge rank 4th and 6th in the world respectively, while Imperial College, London comes in 8th.

Universities Minister David Willetts was quick to point out the implication that the statistics place the UK ahead of America once country size is taken into account, but critics responded by warning of the heavy threat his university reforms hold for the stability and success of UK higher education. The UK Higher Education Policy Institute lamented the “considerable cost” that the new system could have on this success by causing “disruption and uncertainty” for UK universities.

Meanwhile there were some nasty surprises for highly respected UK institutions, with several conspicuous by their absence from the top 100. The University of Warwick, considered one of the best UK universities and ranked 6th in the country by the Guardian University League Table, limps in at a disappointing 157th place in the world rankings. Further poor performances come from the University of Liverpool (in 181st place) and Cardiff (lower than the top 200), whilst the universities of Hertfordshire, Hull, Plymouth and Surrey failed even to make it into the top 300. Perhaps most shocking of all was the performance of Loughborough University, which plummeted to the very depths of the table, placed between 350th and 400th in the world.

As usual we have compiled our own unique league table to allow the comparison at a glance of the top 20 UK universities alone. The low placement of the University of Leeds, in 20th place, has raised some eyebrows, whilst the London School of Economics has pulled off a spectacular ascent, rising an incredible 39 places in the world rankings from last year’s position.

Overall the table reveals a thriving academic sphere of which the UK should be rightly proud. But we must heed the warnings of those who fear next year’s reforms may bring our university success toppling down around our ears.