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The UK continues to top world university rankings – here’s why that matters

University rankings can be very influential. They are one way higher education institutions can show off their ability to deliver good research and teaching. And they are also a useful guide for potential students – with those from both the UK and overseas using various rankings to help with their decision of where to study.

Attending a high-ranking university can provide graduates with better paid jobs, because top ranked universities are often looked on more favourably on CVs. And as the number of people holding a degree increases, attending a higher ranked university is one way graduates can differentiate themselves from the competition.

Some students who don’t make the grade, will also look to “improve” or “upgrade” their education, based on the rankings of an institution. This is where students initially accept a place at a lower-ranked university and then look to transfer to a higher-ranked one later on. This can be done as part of a “top-up” program for undergraduate study or when they embark upon postgraduate study.

International outlook

But not all rankings are made equal. And it seems increasingly, some university league tables are proving to be more important than others. This includes the more global ones – such as the QS World University Rankings and The Times Higher Education World University Rankings – this has seen many institutions working hard to remain at the top of such tables.

Many governments across the world also use global university rankings to measure their competitiveness. And in some countries they are even used to help drive positive change within higher education – rankings can be used as a benchmark, allowing institutions to identify strengths and weaknesses and areas for improvement.

Oxford and Cambridge were named best two universities in the world in a recent ranking. Shutterstock

The globalisation of higher education seems to show no signs of slowing down. In fact more universities are pursuing their internationalisation agendas to increase global competitiveness and attract the best and brightest academics and students. In a few cases some universities have even been said to favour international students over local ones due to the higher fees they bring.

But as well as the high fees, there is also an argument that international students bring their own knowledge and understanding of the world. This global knowledge can then be shared among students and staff in the classroom – creating a global laboratory for open discussion and debate.

Knowledge exchange

In this way, the internationalisation of universities often results in both academics and students coming together from across the globe. This can increase the melting pot of ideas for research projects as well as the funding that can be applied for.

This international knowledge exchange can also help gather skills and knowledge from others that work in the same field. And can extend international research networks – as well as providing a greater audience for the research produced.

But to continue to attract students and academics from overseas, universities need to remain competitive. And with political changes and international student enrolments down in countries such as the US and UK, this may prove harder to achieve.

Home and away

Transnational education (TNE) – where students can stay in their home country and study degrees from abroad – is one way universities have been expanding. And many governments, including the UK have been supporting the development of educational partnerships and programs abroad. This allows universities to set up branch campuses or educational partnerships to recruit students who may not want to, or perhaps cannot leave their home country.

TNE provisions could also provide UK universities with alternatives after Brexit. But more importantly these branch campuses provide further exposure and awareness of their institution in new markets. All of which helps to secure and maintain their competitive position.

The world’s your oyster when it comes to higher education. Shutterstock

What all this shows is that remaining in the top spots of the rankings – as many UK and US universities continue to do – is of course important for a number of reasons.

But as international student enrolment flattens, it is clear the global higher education landscape is changing. And with newer destinations for study such as China entering the market, it seems governments and universities may need to be ready to consider alternative options if they want to remain competitive in this rapidly shifting landscape.

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