British universities storm world league table

Rite of passage: students leaving Cambridge university in their graduation robes © Getty Images

American institutions still come top, but six British universities are now in the global top 20. And UK graduates are more employable, an international study finds. Should this matter?

Harvard may have pushed Cambridge into third place, but British academics were celebrating on Tuesday as this year’s global university rankings showed that six UK institutions are now in the world’s top 20.

For the first time, Kings College London and Edinburgh joined Cambridge, Oxford, University College London and Imperial College at the top of a list which ranks universities on six measures of their reputation for both teaching and research.

America dominates the list: not only is the top institution still Massachusetts Institute of Technology (usually known as MIT), but 11 of the top 20 are in the US while Harvard leapfrogged Cambridge into second place.

But Britain’s national pride was also boosted by the opinion polling behind the ranking, which showed that graduates of top British universities are better placed to get jobs than those at competing international institutions. Graduates from Oxford and Cambridge are rated as the world’s most employable, in the view of 27,000 international recruiters.

Would-be students and current undergraduates, worrying about how well their future career will help them repay loans and tuitions, will be happy to hear their job prospects are boosted by a degree from a good UK university.

Employers have in recent years put greater pressure on dons to prepare undergraduates better for the world of work, as well as expanding their minds.

And politicians, who have to look for the money to fund the system out of the nation’s taxes, tend to side with them: ‘The medieval concept of a community of scholars seeking truth is not in itself a justification for the state to put money into that,’ said Charles Clarke, the minister in charge of university policy in the last Labour government.

But among academics, the philosophy that lies behind these measurements is challenged as overly utilitarian. Instead, they look back fondly on the reasons why universities were founded: as centres of pure learning, where great thought and research could be carried out by those closeted from the world.

Utility or futility?

Cardinal Newman, the Victorian thinker who pondered what a university should be, wrote: ‘Education, in a large sense of the word, is one of the great and incessant occupations of human society, carried on partly with set purpose, and partly not.’

This debate about what a university is for has continued throughout modern times and into our own era: is it primarily there to educate and equip students for the practical parts of life, like employment? Or give them space for thought and intellectual exploration before the pressures of real life and work become all-consuming? Or perhaps, as Newman suggests, it will always be both?

You Decide

  1. Is university ‘useful’?
  2. Should the taxpayer pay for universities? Or students? Or a combination of the two?


  1. Hold a class debate: utilitarian education versus the pure enjoyment of learning.
  2. Research in more detail how university rankings are determined, and the controversy about the methods.

Some People Say...

“Academic competition is unfair – all universities should be equal.”

What do you think?

Q & A

But I don’t want to go to university.
It’s not for everyone. But whether the institutions of your own country flourish or wither matters to the whole nation – and not just because of the prestige that makes journalists in the UK report on this latest global ranking with a touch of pride. Universities matter to the economy, as training grounds and as the site of discoveries that can boost business. Research and teaching departments produce the well-qualified graduates and the new inventions and discoveries on which many industries depend.
You’re changing my mind: I will go to college!
Well, that’s great. Why not use the links after this article to do some research on where you might go and what you might study?

Word Watch

Six measures
The QS survey is based on a survey of academic reputation; a survey of employers; how often is research from the institution quoted; how small are the class sizes; and how international are the staff and students.
An approach based on valuing only what is useful. In the mouths of those who defend universities as the place for pure academic learning, this is a derogatory term. But the original philosophy of utilitarianism is more complicated: it is based on the idea of arranging society and making decisions based on what improves the happiness of the greatest number of people.
Charles Clarke
Now retired from frontline politics, Charles Clarke was Secretary of State for Education in Tony Blair’s government. He famously suggested that academics in unusual branches of study like Medieval history were ‘ornamental’ but not useful enough to society to justify state funding.
Cardinal Newman
John Henry Newman was a famous Victorian academic, theologian and churchman, who helped found University College Dublin. He is most famous for leaving the Church of England and becoming a Catholic. He was beatified by the last Pope and may yet be made a saint.


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