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Top universities pull away from pack

The Times

A handful of elite universities is pulling away from the rest of Britain’s higher education as the gap between top institutions and the rest widens, new tables show.

League tables show that Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and University College London entrenched their positions among the world’s top 20 universities.

Britain’s university sector sealed its place as the second strongest worldwide, behind only the United States whose institutions dominate the rankings.

But the growing gulf between the top four and the other leading universities is a blow to attempts by the Government to narrow the gap between selective universities.

The coalition’s higher education reforms, with student number controls lifted for undergraduates with A-level grades of AAB or higher, are intended to create a British “Ivy League” of around a dozen top universities.

This is modelled on America’s universities where the brightest 5 per cent of undergraduates attend a small number of elite institutions rather than Britain’s model where, beyond Oxford and Cambridge, they are spread across a wider number.

One league table, published today by Times Higher Education, places Oxford fourth in the world, Cambridge sixth, Imperial eighth and UCL 17th. Three others - Edinburgh, London School of Economics and Manchester – are in the top 50 with 32 British universities among the world’s best 200.

Overall, British universities were ranked more highly than last year, although this in part reflects a change in methodology for the THE table to give greater weighting to arts, humanities and social sciences subjects.

Its surprise finding was that Harvard lost its top slot to the California Institute of Technology. There were 75 American universities in the world’s top 200. After Britain the countries with the next highest number of top universities were the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and Australia.

Separate global tables published last month by QS, which uses a different method including survey of academics and graduate employers, ranked Cambridge the world’s number one university for the second successive year, ahead of Harvard. It put Oxford, Imperial and UCL fifth, sixth and seventh respectively.

The findings were welcomed by the Russell Group, which represents Britain’s 20 biggest research universities, but it warned that the Government’s freeze four year in research funding meant they risked being overtaken.

Wendy Piatt, its director, said: “Our leading universities offer a bigger bang for the buck than most of our competitors and punch well above their weight when you look at performance relative to expenditure.

“But we certainly can’t rest on our laurels. Our global competitors are pumping billions into higher education and snapping at our heels.”

But David Willetts, the universities minister, said the coalition’s decision to raise tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year should mean that British universities had more income at a time of austerity.

“Our reforms put university funding on to a sustainable footing. We estimate that the cash going to universities could be 10 per cent higher by 2014-15 than it is now,” Mr Willetts said.

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