The top 20 universities in the UK

Oxford and Cambridge hold on to their top spots but British universities fall in the global rankings

University students return for the spring term at Cambridge University
Cambridge and Oxford are the first- and second-ranked universities in the UK
(Image credit: Graeme Robertson/Getty Images)

A majority of the UK’s top universities have seen their global ranking fall thanks to fierce competition from China.

The 2023 edition of the “Global 2,000” list by the Center for World University Rankings (CWUR), which ranks the 2,000 best-performing universities in the world, features 93 British institutions. Cambridge and Oxford are the first and second ranked universities in the UK, respectively. Their standings in the global list have not changed since 2022: Cambridge ranks fourth; Oxford ranks fifth. Six other universities, including King’s College London and Cardiff, maintained their spots, and 32 others climbed in the ranks.

The larger trend, however, was downward. Some 55 British institutions saw their standings fall compared to the year before, “because their graduates were less employable and the quality of research had dropped”, The Times reported. Growing international competition is also putting pressure on UK universities. In particular, China “has ploughed investment into higher education”, the newspaper said. While 60% of top British institutions slipped down in the CWUR rankings, 96% of China’s climbed.

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China launched its “Double First Class University Plan” in 2017, aiming to strengthen its higher education system and feature in the lists “of world-class universities and world-class subjects by 2050”, according to King’s College London.

The UK’s higher education system remains “outstanding”, Dr Nadim Mahassen, president of the CWUR, told the Times, but the “broader story for the nation is concerning”. Mahassen said universities need to focus on bringing in top academic talent and boosting teaching capacity.

“We are in a global race,” Prof Irene Tracey, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, told The Telegraph. “Unless we meet this challenge, UK universities’ position as a science powerhouse and a key export is at risk.”

British universities are also being squeezed by inflation, which has “cut the value of tuition fees by nearly one-third in real terms”, according to the Financial Times. Tuition fees are universities’ “primary source of income” but have risen just £250 since being set at £9,000 a year in 2021, the newspaper added.

There may be some consolation. The UK is still “the university powerhouse of Europe”, claiming four of the top 10 institutions on the CWUR list, and nine of the top 50, the Times said. That’s “two more than second-placed France”.

Here is a list of the UK’s top 20 universities:

1. University of Cambridge (world ranking: 4th)

2. University of Oxford (5th)

3. University College London (19th)

4. Imperial College London (29th)

5. King's College London (40th)

6. University of Edinburgh (48th)

7. University of Manchester (50th)

8. University of Birmingham (84th)

9. University of Bristol (93rd)

10. University of Leeds (108th)

11. University of Southampton (125th)

12. University of Glasgow (129th)

13. University of Liverpool (136th)

14. University of Nottingham (139th)

15. University of Sheffield (152nd)

16. Queen Mary University of London (155th)

17. Cardiff University (156th)

18. Newcastle University (162nd)

19. University of Warwick (177th)

20. London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (208nd)

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