World University Rankings show U.S. slipping, though still dominant in Top 10

Other nations have closed gaps in the Top 100; Oxford tops Harvard at No. 1.
Oxford University (Ben Seymour/Unsplash)

The stranglehold that universities in the United States have had in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings over the past decade has loosened as institutions across the globe increase research, citations and put more emphasis on teaching.

Although seven of the top 10 universities in the newly released rankings for 2023 are from the states, there has been a noticeable decline in recognition of those among the top 100. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the University of Minnesota, University of Maryland at College Park, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Dartmouth College, Purdue University all have fallen out. Notably, Penn State University has dropped from 78th in 2020 to a tie for 151st this year.

So how concerning is it that, since 2018, U.S. scores on reputation for research, teaching and citations all have fallen slightly?

“The research supremacy of U.S. universities is waning, in part because of a growing gap in output between elite universities and the rest,” Times Higher Education editor Rosa Ellis says. “On research quality, China is making big strides forward. Over the past year, China’s average score for citations increased significantly; in the same period, the U.S. score dropped slightly.”

But when taking a broader view, the strength of American institutions is still unmatched.

“There’s no evidence that U.S. research is weakening in an absolute sense, or U.S. universities are in any way in decline,” Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the University of Oxford, the world’s No. 1 again this year, told Times Higher Education. “This continues to be the most prestigious system in the world.”

Instead, he termed it “a slight crowd-out effect,” which is to say that others from Oceania (Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia), China and even Africa all have gained momentum in the past few years to unseat some of America’s preeminent research institutions.

Even with Oxford’s victory, elite American institutions continue to show their dominance on the world’s stage. Harvard University finished No. 2, while Stanford University managed a tie for third with the University of Cambridge. The next five are all standout U.S. universities—MIT, Caltech, Princeton, UC-Berkeley and Yale. Harvard, Stanford and Yale, in fact, completed a 1-2-3 of the top spots in terms of teaching.

There are, nonetheless, significant movers to watch from a couple of unexpected spots on the globe. Research funding has helped propel Australia and Oceania into the best overall average score among any area in the world. Africa has 25 new universities on the list, including 12 from Nigeria. Led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Middle East institutions have been the biggest among the movers up the charts.

“Other things helped too,” Merlin Crossley, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of New South Wales told THE. “Australia built up some superb research fellowship programs, in medical research first, then, with the Australian Research Council’s Future Fellowships, across the board. This warded off the well-meaning hand of nepotism and supported top people to do good work.”

Though China’s citations have gained ground and more elite institutions are making their way into the top 100, experts noted that “internalization” at its universities has suffered. That could deeply impact research around important global initiatives in the future.

“It would be safe to say that geopolitics is playing a significant role,” James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, told THE. “Chinese academics are more cautious and have to jump through more bureaucratic hoops to engage [with their] foreign counterparts than five years ago. Some have judged that it’s best just to keep their heads down.”

Nearly 1,800 institutions from 104 countries were ranked in this year’s report, based on 13 measures of excellence: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. Times Higher Education noted the incredible breadth of coverage: 121 million citations, 15.5 million research publications and 40,000 responses from scholars.

Times Higher Education’s World Top 20

  • 1. Oxford University
  • 2. Harvard University
  • (tie) 3. University of Cambridge
  • (tie) 3. Stanford University
  • 5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • 6. California Institute of Technology
  • 7. Princeton University
  • 8. University of California at Berkeley
  • 9. Yale University
  • 10. Imperial College London
  • (tie) 11. Columbia University
  • (tie) 11. ETH Zurich
  • 13. University of Chicago
  • 14. University of Pennsylvania
  • 15. Johns Hopkins University
  • 16. Tsinghua University
  • 17. Peking University
  • 18. University of Toronto
  • 19. National University of Singapore
  • 20. Cornell University

Other U.S. Institutions in the Top 200

  • 21. University of California at Los Angeles
  • 23. University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
  • 24. New York University
  • 25. Duke University
  • (tie) 26. Northwestern University
  • (tie) 26. University of Washington
  • 28. Carnegie-Mellon University
  • 32. University of California at San Diego
  • 38. Georgia Institute of Technology
  • 48. University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign
  • 50. University of Texas at Austin
  • 57. Washington University in Saint Louis
  • 61. Brown University
  • 63. University of California at Davis
  • 64. University of California at Santa Barbara
  • 65. University of Southern California
  • 69. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • (tie) 71. Boston University
  • 81. University of Wisconsin at Madison
  • (tie) 82. Emory University
  • (tie) 95. University of California at Irvine
  • (tie) 98. Vanderbilt University
  • 101. University of Minnesota
  • (tie) 104. University of Maryland at College Park
  • 106. Michigan State University
  • 112. Ohio State University
  • 123. Dartmouth College
  • 127. Purdue University
  • 134. Case Western Reserve University
  • 136. Georgetown University
  • 144. University of Pittsburgh
  • 147. Rice University
  • (tie) 148. University of Colorado at Boulder
  • (tie) 151. Penn State University
  • (tie) 151. Tufts University
  • (tie) 151. University of Florida
  • 154. University of Rochester
  • (tie) 156. Arizona State University
  • (tie) 156. University of Virginia
  • 158. Northeastern University
  • (tie) 170. Indiana University
  • 180. University of Arizona
  • 181. Texas A&M University
  • 191. University of Massachusetts
  • (tie) 192. University of California at Santa Cruz
  • (tie) 194. University of Miami
Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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