University rankings blow for Scottish education

Edinburgh was the only Scottish university to improve its position. Picture: Sean Bell
Edinburgh was the only Scottish university to improve its position. Picture: Sean Bell
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FOUR of Scotland’s major universities have plummeted in an annual list of the world’s best higher education institutions.

The universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and St Andrews all slipped down the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, with only Edinburgh improving on the position it held last year.

Scotland’s poor showing in the league table, which ranks institutions based on teaching, research and international outlook, prompted the survey’s authors to question whether the Scottish Government’s decision to keep tuition free for Scots and EU students was sustainable.

While Edinburgh was the top-ranked Scottish institution, moving from 36th to 32nd spot, St Andrews fell from 85th to 108th in the survey, one of the most authoritative global assessments of universities’ performance.

The University of Glasgow dropped 37 places to 139th, while Aberdeen fell 25 places to joint 176th. The University of Dundee fell out of the top 200 altogether, and is now ranked in the 201-225 band on the “best of the rest” list.

See the list in full here

The compilers of the data said UK institutions were losing ground to well-funded universities in Asia, adding that the decision to treble tuition fees for most students south of the Border to £9,000 a year looked like a “sticking plaster for an amputation”.

Commenting on the findings, Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education rankings, said many English universities faced a “collapse into global mediocrity”, with Scotland’s position no better.

He said: “Some Scottish institutions have fallen far. While there are current policies protecting investment in universities there, they are unlikely to be enough to meet the challenge posed by massive spending in the East [Asia]. These disappointing results may resurrect the debate about charging tuition fees in Scotland.

“Huge investment in top research universities across Asia is starting to pay off. And while the sun rises in the East, England faces a perfect storm: falling public investment in teaching and research; hostile visa conditions discouraging the world’s top academics and students from coming here; and serious uncertainty about where our next generation of scholars will come from, with a policy vacuum surrounding postgraduate study.

“Given the seriousness of the funding cuts facing England and the strength of the competition, the tripled student tuition fees introduced this year look increasingly like a sticking plaster for an amputation.”

The top spot on the list went to the California Institute of Technology, with the University of Oxford and Stanford University tying for second.

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents leading universities, including Edinburgh and Glasgow, said: “Our global competitors are pumping billions into research-intensive higher education and leading Asian universities – especially in South Korea, Singapore and China – are rising fast. For the first time, UK investment in R&D [research and development] as a percentage of GDP has fallen behind China’s.

“The UK cannot afford to be outmanoeuvred by other countries that clearly recognise that investment in their leading universities is the key to growth.”

Tony Axon, of the Association of University Teachers Scotland, said the change in rankings was due to rising levels of university investment in other countries, insisting the policy of free tuition fees north of the Border was “sustainable”.

He added: “You need to invest in education, and it’s quite obvious from these tables that the countries that are investing in education, such as those in the Far East, are climbing the tables, while western universities are going down.

“We’re particularly concerned about what is happening in England. Though tuition fees have been reduced, that has been at the expense of the public funding, so they haven’t necessarily increased the funding overall.”

He claimed there had been some cuts in higher education funding by the Scottish Government that may be reflected in the rankings, but these had since been reversed, which should help investment to increase and push them back up the rankings.

Mr Axon said there were also issues around UK government policy on immigration, which was making it harder to recruit international students and researchers, something that would hurt British universities’ standing abroad.

A spokesman for the University of Glasgow said: “All league tables need to be treated with caution, and while it is unfortunate that our ranking has slipped in this survey, the overall picture for the University of Glasgow remains extremely positive.

“This can be seen from our performance in other recent reports, including the rise to our highest ever position of 54th in the QS World Rankings and our strong showing in the recent National Student Survey, where our overall satisfaction rating of 89 per cent was four points higher than the average for the sector.”

Alistair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, added: “It is clear that the value of a Scottish higher education stands up to international comparison. However, Scotland’s universities are competing in a brutally competitive global marketplace. It will take the continued commitment of energy, initiative and investment if we want to compete.

“We are ambitious for a Scottish higher education sector truly excellent in world terms, not just truly excellent when compared to the rest of the UK.”

One of the most trusted and comprehensive set of university rankings published, the Times Higher Education list uses 13 performance indicators to measure universities’ strengths in teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

The University of Cambridge, down one place to seventh, and Imperial College London, unchanged in eighth, complete the trio of UK top 10 universities alongside Oxford.

The UK remains the second-best represented country behind the US in the prestigious world top 200, with seven top 50 universities and 31 top 200 institutions. But overall, the UK has suffered substantial losses in stark contrast to gains for most of Asia’s leading institutions.

Scotland’s top five in Times Higher Education World University Rankings

University of Edinburgh - 32 (up 4 places)

St Andrews University - 108 (down 23 places)

University of Glasgow - 139 (down 37 places)

University of Aberdeen - 176 (down 25 places)

University of Dundee - Out of top 200 into the ‘best of the rest’ band of 201-225