Amid Brexit questions, Oxford University tops world rankings

In a bright spot for British higher education, Oxford University unseated the California Institute of Technology at the top of the global education food chain. The school is concerned about effects from the Brexit, however. 

Eddie Keogh/REUTERS/File
People punt on the river Cherwell past Magdalen College Tower in Oxford, southern England in 2013.

For the first time, the Times Higher Education global rankings have put a university in the United Kingdom on top: the 2016-2017 rankings saw Oxford University in England unseat the California Institute of Technology, which has topped the list five times.

Although US schools continue to dominate the top 10 and top 20 lists, Oxford’s ranking is a coup for the school. Yet some are concerned that Oxford might not be able to stay on top for long, as questions pile up about the potential Brexit. British higher education officials say that, in general, UK schools are concerned about the prospect of reduced research funding, or top academics being lured away to other countries' schools.

“Our concern is that our academics who are at Oxford might decide to leave if they are concerned that they may not be able to get their research funded in the future,” Oxford's vice chancellor, Louise Richardson, told BBC radio. “There are many universities in the world who would be thrilled to have them and who are approaching them and are asking them if they would return to their universities instead.”

Eighty-eight British universities are ranked in the Times Higher Education's top 800 list, ten more than last year list. With that result, Britain remains second only to the United States in its world education rankings, but some wonder whether that could stay the status quo in a post-Brexit world. 

Currently, Oxford University receives £67 million from the European Research Council. When Britain withdraws from the European Union, however, the university will likely lose that funding. Dr. Richardson told the BBC that unless that funding is replaced by the British government, professors (and prestige) would be likely to seek opportunities elsewhere. Additionally, the 17 percent of University staff that are not British nationals are currently unsure of their long-term status in Britain, she said, adding to the sense of uncertainty.

The presence of several British universities in high positions in the the rankings will undoubtedly be a draw for many students, although questions about attracting international talent continue to keep administrators up at night.

“[The Brexit] is also having an impact on the UK’s potential to attract international talent in the future,” said Phil Baty, the editor of the Times list. “More than two-fifths of prospective overseas students said they were less likely to go to a UK university due to the referendum result, according to a survey by Hobsons.”

Another world university ranking list released this summer by QS World University Rankings saw top UK schools fall in the list overall, with Cambridge University dropping from the third position for the first time since 2004.

Britain’s education secretary Justine Greening told reporters that the government was thrilled to see Oxford’s success, and is examining ways to maintain Britain’s education quality over the coming years.

“Britain has long been home to some of the best universities in the world, and it’s fantastic to see a UK university top these world rankings for the first time,” she said. 

“We want to see this success continue and provide real opportunities for students up and down the country. That is why we are reforming higher education to make sure it delivers the quality teaching and skills that students and employers expect.”

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