Universities of Higher Leaning

“The U.S. has many of the best [leftist] universities in the world, but according to a new global list, it doesn’t have the best.” Beckie Strum

Oxford Tops List of World’s Best Universities

The U.K. school supplants Caltech in annual Times Higher Education rankings

The U.S. has many of the best universities in the world, but according to a new global list, it doesn’t have the best.

The University of Oxford, the oldest in the English-speaking world, became the first school outside the U.S. to take the top spot in the World University Rankings, which also show Asian universities moving up. Photo: Getty Images

The University of Oxford, the oldest in the English-speaking world, took the top spot in the latest World University Rankings, released annually by Times Higher Education. The English university dating to 1096 dethroned the California Institute of Technology, a small, private school in Pasadena that had ranked No. 1 for five-straight years, according to Times Higher Education, a London magazine that tracks higher education.

This is the first time a university outside the U.S. is No. 1 in the list’s 13-year history. This year’s list also underscores strengthening university systems in Asia as schools in China and Hong Kong have risen up the ranks, some by double digits.

Besides the Oxford-Caltech flip flop, the top of the list remained mostly the same as last year. Stanford University came in third, then the University of Cambridge, another U.K. institution founded in medieval times. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology came in fifth, just ahead of its Cambridge, Mass., neighbor, Harvard University, the top Ivy League school on the list.

WUR tends to focus on research, counting metrics like the number of citations and publications by a university’s scholars and the amount of research funding attained in a given year. The list also takes reputation into account by surveying some 20,000 leading scholars to identify top schools, said Phil Baty, rankings editor at Times Higher Education.

“The single biggest individual indicator is research impact,” Mr. Baty said. “We’re looking at 56 million citations, 11.9 million research publications.”

BEST IN CLASS

  • 1. University of Oxford (U.K.)
  • 2. California Institute of Technology (U.S.)
  • 3. Stanford University (U.S.)
  • 4. University of Cambridge (U.K.)
  • 5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (U.S.)
  • 6. Harvard University (U.S.)
  • 7. Princeton University (U.S.)
  • 8. Imperial College London (U.K.)
  • 9. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (SUI)
  • 10. University of California, Berkeley/University of Chicago (U.S.)

The latest World University Rankings, released annually by Times Higher Education

To a lesser extent, WUR also emphasizes global scholarship. Unlike popular American rankings, like those produced by U.S. News & World Report, the list has a global reach and includes only universities. WUR excludes popular metrics used by U.S. ranking systems like acceptance rate, test scores and postgraduation salary, Mr. Baty said.

Oxford’s boost came from an exceptionally strong research income and global collaboration. The university secured record research income of £522.9 million, or $679 million at today’s exchange rates, from external funders in the 2014-2015 academic year, said Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of Oxford.“Industry, charities, health organizations and many other funders are all keen to invest in Oxford research,” said Louise Richardson, vice chancellor, chalking up the record funding to the strength and talent of the university’s scholars.

Christ Church's 'Tom Tower' gatehouse at the University of Oxford.

Further down the list, Asian universities have soared past some of the most prestigious institutions in Europe and the U.S. The number of Chinese universities in the top 200 doubled to four this year. China’s top school, Peking University (No. 29), a public school in Beijing with about 30,000 students, ranked above New York University (No. 32).

Over the past eight years, China has invested the equivalent of roughly $33 billion in developing a group of elite universities through two government initiatives.

“This is meant to be the year that China overtakes the U.S. on science research and science publication,” said Mr. Baty, adding that the country is already leading the world in the number of scientists.

China’s Tsinghua University (No. 35), another large, public university based in Beijing, ranks ahead of Ivy League school Brown University. The University of Hong Kong (No. 43) and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (No. 49) also come in ahead of Brown, which ranks 51.

Part of China’s rise has to do with schools putting more weight on surveys like Times Higher Education’s world rankings, and efforts to lure back reputable Chinese and Chinese-American researchers from American universities, said Mr. Baty.

Another government initiative aims at making six Chinese universities leading global institutions by 2020—some of them in the world’s top 15 by 2030, said Mr. Baty.

The government has focused particularly on increasing science and technology education and research. “The readjustment of university faculties and specialties is the vital step in the transformation process,” Yuan Guiren, China’s former education minister, said in March. “Some specialties, such as engineering and science which cost more than the humanities, should be increased to match the country’s economic and industrial structures.”

The highest-ranked university in Asia is the National University of Singapore, a school of about 38,000 students that offers degree programs heavily subsidized by the city-state’s government, according to its website. At No. 24, that school ranks a slot above the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Meanwhile, U.S. institutions kept their dominant presence on the list.

American schools account for about one-third of the top 200 schools, same as last year. British universities make up 16% of the list, down a percentage point from last year, and Germany claims 11%, up a percentage point.

Notable movers in the U.S. include the University of California, Berkeley, which returned to the top 10 by tying the University of Chicago at No. 10.

Schools that rose into the top 200 this year include the University of Illinois at Chicago, ranked 200, and Northeastern University in Boston, ranked 182. Schools that fell out of the top 200 include the University of Utah and Boston College.

Times Higher Education is a unit of TES Global Ltd., a London company owned by private-equity firm TPG Capital since 2013. Times Higher Education was sold in 2005 by News Corp., the parent of The Wall Street Journal owner Dow Jones & Co. Times Higher Education has a business relationship with The Wall Street Journal to develop college rankings.

Amplification:
This article was updated to include ownership information about Times Higher Education. (Sept. 22)

Write to Beckie Strum at Beckie.Strum@wsj.com

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