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U.S. Colleges Slip in Global Rankings

The U.S. continues to lay claim to more elite research universities than any other country in the world, but that dominance is beginning to fray, according to the 2018 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

By

Douglas Belkin

The U.S. continues to lay claim to more elite research universities than any other country in the world, but that dominance is beginning to fray.

Oxford and Cambridge, the intellectual one-two punch of the U.K., took the first and second spots in the 2018 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Their showing marked the first year schools outside the U.S. seized the two top positions in the 14-year history of the list.

The U.S., led by California Institute of Technology and Stanford University, took seven of the top 11 spots.

But this also marked the fifth year of consecutive decline in the overall showing of the U.S. This ranking listed 62 U.S. schools in the top 200. In 2014, 77 U.S. universities ranked in the top 200.

By contrast, the cumulative reputation of Chinese research institutions is swelling. In the latest ranking, seven Chinese schools cracked the top 200. In 2014, there were just two. Peking University and Tsinghua University topped Chinese schools, ranking 27th and 30th, respectively. That placed them ahead of the Georgia Institute of Technology (No. 33), Brown University (No. 51) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (No. 56).

The Top 20

  • 1. University of Oxford (U.K.)
  • 2. University of Cambridge (U.K.)
  • T-3. California Institute of Technology (U.S.)
  • T-3. Stanford University (U.S.)
  • 5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (U.S.)
  • 6. Harvard University (U.S.)
  • 7. Princeton University (U.S.)
  • 8. Imperial College London (U.K.)
  • 9. University of Chicago (U.S.)
  • T-10. ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (Switzerland)
  • T-10. University of Pennsylvania (U.S.)
  • 12. Yale University (U.S.)
  • 13. Johns Hopkins University (U.S.)
  • 14. Columbia University (U.S.)
  • 15. University of California, Los Angeles (U.S.)
  • 16. University College London (U.K.)
  • 17. Duke University (U.S.)
  • 18. University of California, Berkeley (U.S.)
  • 19. Cornell University (U.S.)
  • 20. Northwestern University (U.S.)

“It’s not doom and gloom, the U.S. still dominates the list, but there are clear warning signs and fairly significant flashing red lights that the U.S. is under threat from increasing competition,” said Phil Baty, rankings editor at Times Higher Education. “Asia is rising. It’s a worrying time for stagnation for the U.S.”

The World University Ranking awards about a third of its score to the research generated by a university’s scholars, in part by culling 62 million citations and 12.4 million research publications. Research funding also plays a role.

Institutional income—the money generated by the university—and research reputation dinged U.S. schools, while it pulled up the scores of Chinese schools.

A quirk of timing may have also hurt the U.S. numbers this year, Mr. Baty said. A survey of 20,000 scholars that aims to distill reputation of schools as seen by experts in the field took place in January, February and March, just as President Donald Trump was assuming office and attempting to limit access to the U.S. by citizens from six Muslim countries. Academics, who frequently collaborate globally, by and large reacted poorly to Mr. Trump’s plans, he said.

By contrast, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union preceded the survey by half a year and may not have been top of mind, Mr. Baty said.

Stanford University's campus is seen from atop Hoover Tower in Stanford, Calif.Photo: beck diefenbach/Reuters

The ascendance of Oxford and Cambridge comes after years of increases in research revenue—but much of that money, as well as the researchers who use it, come from the European Union. Britain’s decision to withdraw from the EU has thrown that revenue source into question.

In recent years, Chinese universities have worked to internationalize their course offerings and attract more foreign students. The efforts have paid dividends: in 2016, according to government figures, more than 440,000 foreign students were studying in China, with students mostly hailing from South Korea and the U.S. That figure marks a 35% increase over 2012.

The rise of Chinese universities also comes as the Chinese Communist Party has invested heavily in research universities. Elizabeth Perry, a professor at Harvard and expert on China, said the Chinese are actively “gaming” the system.

“They are hiring an army of postdocs whose responsibility is to produce articles,” she said. “They are changing the nature of a university from an educational institution to basically a factory that is producing what these rankings reward.”

Xia Qiong, a professor at Wuhan University in central China, also criticized what she described as an excessive fixation on publication metrics in Chinese universities.

Oxford, shown, and Cambridge rank first and second among elite research universities.Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

“Research overly emphasizes quantity, not quality,” Ms. Xia said, “and accordingly produces a lot of trash and wastes a lot of research funds.”

McMaster University in Canada posted the largest jump of any school in the top 100, rising 35 places to 78 from 113 last year. New York University also reported a notable bump, to 27 from 32.

McMaster’s bump came in part because of an increase in the quantity and quality of their research, much of it in the health sciences, said Patrick Deane, the university’s president. This past year saw great success in creating antibiotics to treat infectious diseases and creating molecules that carry radioactive charges designed to detect cancer in very early forms.

“We’ve been very successful recruiting excellent researchers from around the world,” Dr. Deane said. “And we’re certainly seeing an upturn in the numbers of international students” which he believes is connected to rising nationalism in the U.S. and U.K.

New York University, which is among the most global universities in the U.S. with campuses in more than a dozen countries, has also benefited from their global reach and cosmopolitanism, said its president,  Andrew Hamilton. The decision to build a global network, started 50 years ago. “It was prescient,” he said. “This is absolutely the right time to be a global school.”

Times Higher Education is a unit of TES Global Ltd., a London company owned by private-equity firm TPG Capital since 2013.

Times Higher Education was sold in 2005 by  News Corp , the parent of The Wall Street Journal owner Dow Jones & Co. Times Higher Education has a business relationship with The Wall Street Journal to develop college rankings.

—Te-Ping Chen
contributed to this article.

Write to Douglas Belkin at doug.belkin@wsj.com

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