British universities are slipping down the world rankings, with experts blaming the decline on pressure to admit more disadvantaged students.
Cambridge University, which for many years was ranked the best in the world and for a decade held a place in the top three, has now dropped down to fifth place, according to the QS World University Rankings.
Overall, 51 of the UK’s 76 institutions have slipped down in the rankings since last year. The majority of Russell Group members, which represents 24 of the UK’s most selective universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, with 16 dropping down in the rankings.
Professor Alan Smithers, who is head of the centre for education and employment at the University of Buckingham, said that the decline was because “universities are no longer free to take their own decisions and recruit the most talented students which would ensure top positions in league tables”.
He said that instead, universities are forced to comply with “all sorts of requirements in terms of the ethnic mix, the levels of income of the students and whether they come from low income areas”.
Under the current fees system, any English university wishing to charge tuition fees of over around £6,000 must have an access agreement approved by Offa. This sets out what the university intends to do to recruit and retain youngsters who would not normally study for a degree.
Earlier this year, the higher education tsar warned that top universities must make more effort to accept poor students.
Les Ebdon, director of (Offa) said that the argument used by admissions tutors that disadvantaged students’ grades are not high enough “just doesn’t hold water”, and criticised the Russell Group for suggesting that there is a limit on the numbers of poorer teenagers they can recruit.
Prof Smithers said that Britain’s top universities are under pressure to recruit more disadvantaged students, and that this “has diverted their attention from really providing the subjects and the fields that they feel are the most appropriate and drawing in the best students”.
“If the premier league made all sorts of requirements about recruiting left footed and right footed players, the teams wouldn’t be quite as successful,” he said.
“This interference is getting in the way of the purpose of universities which is identifying the most talented students and taking them to the frontier of their subject,” he said.
QS, which has compiled the global university rankings since 2004, ranks institutions according to six metrics: academic reputation, employer reputation, faculty to student ratio, citations per faculty, the international faculty ratio and the international student ratio.
Dr Joanna Williams, a senior lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent, said: “Universities are casting the net a lot wider and reaching out to more socially diverse groups, which is good.
“But it means you can’t assume that students come in with a body of knowledge and you have to spend a certain amount of time bringing them up to standard”. Dr Williams added that universities are giving lower A-level offers – not just to disadvantaged students but to all students – in order to fill places.
“The assumptions you would have had in the past like telling students to go away and read the book or write the essay, are no longer there,” she said. “Universities are becoming more like schools in teaching style, and that removes a lot of the intellectual challenge.”
Dr Tim Bradshaw, acting director of the Russell Group, admitted that there is “room for improvement” and that investment will be required to maintain the UK’s global standing in higher education.
Baroness Alison Wolf, a cross-bench peer and professor of public policy at King’s College London, said that while British universities are relatively well-funded, their American competitors have “been spending more and more” in recent years.
“If we are slipping through the ranks it is partly that other countries are pouring money into higher education,” she said. “Governments all over the world are obsessed with the idea of having world class universities.”
The top ten universities according to QS World University Rankings 2018
1 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
2 Standford University
3 Harvard University
4 California Institute of Technology
5 University of Cambridge
6 University of Oxford
7 University College London
8 Imperial College London
9 University of Chicago
10 Eth Zurich (Swiss Federal Institution of Technology)
(Originally Published at Telegraph.co.uk, click here for more)