British universities have dropped down a global league table amid intense competition from Chinese rivals.
The UK is struggling to maintain its global dominance after some of its universities scored lower in areas such as research performance and the proportion of graduates going to hold top company positions, according to the Centre for World University (CWU) Rankings.
The annual research found that while Oxford and Cambridge have maintained their positions as top-five universities in the Global 2000 list, overall 60 per cent of UK universities slipped lower down the rankings.
In contrast, 96 per cent of Chinese universities ranked better than last year, led by Beijing’s Tsinghua University at number 44.
Prof Irene Tracey, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, said: “Our British universities with their research and teaching excellence and international brand recognition should be considered as national treasures. They are the engine room of our knowledge economy and play a key part in driving Britain’s economic growth as well as solving some of the world’s greatest global challenges.”
She said that the “significant investment and support given by countries like China” had most likely caused the decline in the rankings of some universities.
“We are in a global race, and unless we meet this challenge, UK universities’ position as a science powerhouse and a key export is at risk,” she added.
Of the Russell Group’s 24 members, 14 ranked lower, including Edinburgh, Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Glasgow, Liverpool, Nottingham, Sheffield, Queen Mary University of London, Newcastle, Warwick, York, Durham and St Andrews.
The top-three positions were all held by US universities, with Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford in first, second and third place respectively.
However, both the US and UK are coming under pressure from China, which has continued to invest heavily in its universities sector under the country’s Double First-Class University Plan, which aims to create a group of world-class universities and disciplines, such as Material Science, Engineering and Quantum Science, by 2050.
While the US secured eight of the top-10 places globally, 80 per cent of US universities fell in the rankings.
UK universities have warned that their finances are being eroded by inflation, which has cut the value of home tuition fees by almost a third in real terms.
Tuition fees, which are the main source of income to fund teaching and learning, have risen by just £250 since they were set at £9,000 a year in 2012.
Lord Johnson of Marylebone, a former Conservative universities minister, said: “The relentless erosion of the value of capped domestic tuition fee income is putting universities on a fast track to mediocrity.”
He said that universities which deliver great teaching and student outcomes, should be allowed to raise fees in line with inflation.
Lord Willetts, who is also a former Conservative universities minister, said: “At the moment, because university fees have been frozen for year after year, the revenue universities make from overseas students which used to go towards funding research, is now going towards cross-subsidising British students in our universities.”
He warned there is a danger that a “golden triangle” of institutions in the South of England, including Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, UCL and King’s College London which are doing well, “pulls ahead of the leading research universities elsewhere in the country”.
In addition to employment outcomes for graduates and research performance, the CWU league table analyses the number of faculty members and alumni who have received top academic distinctions, and the number of research articles that appear in top tier journals or are frequently cited.
Dr Nadim Mahassen, president of the CWU Rankings, said: “Efforts must be made to ensure that the UK continues to attract top academics and students, that increasing enrollment numbers at universities come alongside increases in teaching capacity, and that tertiary education expenditure as a percentage of the national GDP steadily grows in the years to come.”
A spokesman for the Russell Group said: “Rankings systems are a snapshot in time and often change from one year to the next. Universities will always prioritise a high-quality education for our students which is why it is vital that we have a resilient funding system to address the growing per-student deficits that all universities are dealing with.”
The Department for Education declined to comment.