Although the U.S. maintains its strong position in the 2012-2013 edition of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, overall, American universities have given ground to the ascent of academic institutions from the Asia-Pacific region. This represents a universal trend among Western countries, with many marquee Western European universities finding themselves much lower — or even off the list entirely.
The California Institute of Technology maintains its grip on the top of the rankings, repeating its showing from the year before. However, Harvard University, last year's runner up, slipped two places to number four to make room for California's Stanford University and UK's University of Oxford, which tied for second. At first glance, the position of U.S. institutions remains as strong as ever by retaining possession of seven of the top ten slots. Of the top 200, 76 are American universities, a gain of one over last year's list.
Still, the relative position of those 76 tells a much more alarming story.
The Times Higher Education World University Rankings are the world's most comprehensive and carefully calibrated global rankings, using 13 separate performance indicators to examine a university's strengths against all of its core missions – teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. All data are collected, analysed and verified by global data provider Thomson Reuters.
The methodology, which is identical to the one used last year, presents a picture of a slipping grip on premier educational status by institutions in the U.S. and Western Europe, and the steady rise of schools in Asia-Pacific. The biggest impact seems to have been on institutions mostly funded by public money as many U.S. state universities, while still appearing on the list, declined from their position the year before. Those include members of the University of California system such as UC Davis, which went from 38th place last year to 44th this year. Several other state schools performed similarly, including Pennsylvania State University (from 51st to 61st), University of Massachusetts (from 64th to 72nd,) and Arizona State University, which slipped down to become one of the lowest ranked U.S. schools on the list at 148.
Still, American schools performed well compared to Canadian universities for whom this year's edition of the rankings offered almost no good news at all. Of the nine Canadian institutions represented on the list last year, only eight returned, with Queen's University falling off the rankings entirely. Of the remainder, only two moved up: the University of Montreal jumped 20 places from 104th to 84th and the University of Ottawa went up from 185th to 171st.
In stark contrast, the leading universities from across the Asia-Pacific region saw significant improvements.
China's two top 200 institutions both rose, with Peking University moving from 49th to 46th and Tsinghua jumping 19 places from 71st to 52nd. Thanks to extremely strong income figures, Singapore's two top 200 institutions saw spectacular success. The National University of Singapore moved from 40th to 29th and Nanyang Technological University rocketed up the table from 169th to 86th.
Universities in South Korea also had good showings. Not only had each of the schools on the list last year gained in standing, an additional South Korean school entered the top 200: Yonsei University at 183rd. The press release accompanying the new edition of the list took a particular note of the "spectacular" improvement by Seoul National University, which, in one year, went from 124th to 59th.
Editor of Times Higher Education rankings Phil Baty took note of the fact that the grip by American universities on the rankings seems to be loosening.
"America's lead in global higher education and research is faltering. The US still has by far the most world-class universities of any nation, and its leading institutions remain the very best in the world – but there are signs of dangerous complacency and the start of the decline of a world-leading university sector.
"While household names MIT, Caltech and Berkeley hold on to top positions, the US as a whole has suffered serious decline – of the 71 institutions ranked in the top 200, 51 have fallen down the table.
"This comes down to money. For many years, the US has been the world's biggest investor in tertiary education, spending more of its gross domestic product than any other developed nation on its universities — but not anymore. Latest figures from the OECD show that the US spend has dipped – from 2.8 per cent to 2.6 per cent – and South Korea has caught up.
Baty noted that while America seems to be rolling back its investment in higher education — something that is already having an impact on the rankings of its formerly well-performing public universities — countries in the Asia-Pacific region are increasing the percentage of GDP allocated towards university funding. He theorizes that this is one of the reasons behind their rapid rise up the list.
Still, money isn't everything as proved by the Canadian example. At 2.5% of GDP, Canada spends well above the OECD average on higher education, but it is not seeing much of a return on its investment. On average, Canada's showing was 5 slots lower than their performance last year.
Writing in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings publication in a personal capacity, Dirk Van Damme, the head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, said: "Academic excellence is gradually shifting away from the 20th-century centres. The US and UK still dominate the absolute top, but they face a severe loss of total ranking positions in the top 200 list."