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The geopolitics of rankings: The positioning of UK higher education and research

  • 21 August 2023
  • By Ellen Hazelkorn
  • This blog was kindly authored for the HEPI 20th Anniversary Collection by Professor Ellen Hazelkorn, International Co-Investigator for the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE).
  • We are currently running chapters from the Anniversary Collection as a series of blogs. This piece is the twelfth chapter from that collection.

The twentieth anniversary of HEPI merits reflection on the positioning of the UK in the context of changes internationally in higher education. What is particularly striking to me is that throughout the twentieth century and earlier, the UK played a critical role in helping to shape the global and European higher education landscape. In contrast, at a time when the values of higher education and transnational collaboration are vulnerable to the crosscurrents of a geopolitically contested world, the UK’s position has become more ambiguous.

Ireland provides a valuable vantage point from which to review these changes. As the UK considers its options in the post-Brexit world, Ireland by contrast is proudly celebrating 50 years of EU membership. Membership, and a determined policy to expand secondary and then higher education, have been fundamental to Ireland’s dramatic social and economic transformation. From a country heavily dependent on protectionist economic policies and agriculture, it is now a high-skilled internationally-open trading society and one of the best-performing economies in the EU.

Internationalisation, collaboration and scientific exchange at heart of UK universities

The values of internationalisation, collaboration and scientific exchange have been intrinsic to UK universities. Arguably, the rapid development of the University of Oxford from 1167 was both a denial of these values – spurred by Henry II banning English students attending the University of Paris – and an affirmation, when in 1190 Oxford welcomed its first international student. Beginning in the seventeenth century, England and Scotland became leading scientific centres. Discoveries by Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Jethro Tull, George Stephenson, Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell, Alan Turing, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Kathleen Lonsdale and more recently Stephen Hawking, Tim Berners-Lee and Anne McLaren – to name just a few – have had an enormous impact on modern science and society around the world. In 2020, the Oxford team led by Sarah Gilbert developed an early vaccine against COVID-19 in collaboration with AstraZeneca.

Britain’s contribution extends further. UK universities were central to helping define global and European higher education. In 1913, the Association of Commonwealth Universities was established to ensure communication between universities within the British empire beyond independence and critically beyond borders.1 It was followed in 1930 by the formation of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, predecessor to Universities UK (UUK), established in 2000.

In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, Winston Churchill appealed for the rebuilding of a ‘network of knowledge and know-how on a European scale’. The Hague Congress on European Cooperation in 1948 led to the formation of the College of Europe in Bruges, the European Cultural Centre in Geneva, the European Cultural Foundation and CERN.

In 1952 the first talks were held between ministers and universities of five European countries – the UK, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Three years later, the University of Cambridge hosted a conference considered as the first General Assembly of the Standing Conference of European Rectors (CRE). CRE was formally established in 1959 on an initiative of the Council of Europe.

The Sorbonne Declaration was initiated by education ministers from the UK, Germany, France and Italy in 1998. It laid the groundwork for the Bologna Process which has become the defining project of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). With its birth, there was a recognised need for European higher education to speak as one voice, prompting the formation of the European University Association(EUA) in 2001.

The UK also played a formative role in helping set standards for quality assurance and transforming an ‘informal discussion forum of quality enthusiasts into a professional cross-European association’ called ENQA – the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education. As Peter Williams has also noted, it was important for the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) – founded in 1997 – to ‘have an international network to explore quality benchmarking’, which in turn has been instrumental in the creation of UK-wide benchmarks for quality and standards.2 It was in this context that the QAA participated in the development of the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area in 2005. UK academics and higher education leaders have held senior positions in both EUA and ENQA.

Geopolitics of rankings

Universities and university organisations are strategic global actors. Notwithstanding criticisms of globalisation, science, technology & innovation performance and reputation sit at the fulcrum of a geopolitical struggle for a greater share of the global market and the emerging new world order. Previous decades saw the US, Japan and the EU dominate science and technology research. Over the last two decades, China’s technological leadership has risen most particularly in 5G, batteries and photovoltaics, creating three distinct power blocs: the US, China and the EU. In contrast to its historical accomplishments, the UK sits at the bottom of the graph; indeed, in the 2023 iteration, it no longer appears.3

These changing geopolitical dynamics are evident also in global rankings. Despite criticism of global university rankings, they are widely used by governments, universities and students, other stakeholders and the media because they tell a complex story simply. Arguably, they tell us something about the competitive advantages of our institutions and our nations. The table illustrates very well the changing global landscape, and positioning of countries.

In 2003, the year ARWU first emerged on the world stage, the US and Europe dominated global rankings. Most notable over the years has been China’s ascent. Mainland China had no universities in the top 100 in 2003, compared with 58 for the United States and nine for the UK. By 2022, mainland China and the UK both had eight universities in the top 100.

The position of individual universities and countries may change over time depending upon which ranking is employed but the message is consistent. The increasing number of countries now appearing in global rankings – rising from 39 in 2003 to 64 in 2022 – illustrates the multi-polarity of global science. It also highlights the relative decline of the UK – and US – telling us almost everything we need to know about geopolitical tensions today.

Key to these outcomes is international collaboration which is the defining feature of the new global geography of science. It has become synonymous with excellent research and heightened citation impact. Networks and associations are a vital means for encouraging and supporting collaboration and scientific migration flows. Yet even here, there is evidence of the world order shifting. These networks have been dominated and led by top universities from the global north. The formation of the Asian Universities Alliance in 2017, bringing together 15 universities from 14 Asian and Middle Eastern and North African countries and conspicuously excluding Australia and New Zealand, underscores the changing landscape.

Finally, while collaboration has been rising between OECD countries and China, ideological and policy decisions and geopolitical tensions are beginning to limit and/or reshape partnerships. Both the US and UK show an outflow of talent by Chinese and EU citizens, who are finding their own countries more attractive. While international student numbers to the UK – especially for the top-ranked universities – are increasing, a key figure to watch is visa applications from international researchers and this is declining post-Brexit.

Europe’s strategy for universities and research

In response to changing geopolitical dynamics, the EU put European universities at the heart of its future. In 2022, it published the European Strategy for Universities and the Council Recommendation on Building Bridges for Effective European Higher Education Cooperation.6

The European Universities Initiative (EUI) – aiming to expand to more than 500 universities by 2024 – is a key pillar progressing transnational cooperation in order to create more globally competitive institutions. Not only is there an emphasis on joint programming and degrees but, in addition to the almost €400 million dedicated to these transnational collaborations, they will also attract priority funding from other initiatives. A similar initiative is in place for Centres of Vocational Excellence. Participants will benefit from an expanded Erasmus+ student and staff mobility scheme.

At €95.5 billion, Horizon Europe is now the largest single research funding programme in the world. But it is more than that; it shares the ambitions of Bologna to create a single borderless European Research Area. It also aims to expand beyond the EU – and has already concluded negotiations with Canada and New Zealand. There is also a programme of multilateral workshops and knowledge sharing.

A European Higher Education Sector Observatory will integrate current EU data tools and capacities to provide a comprehensive evidence and research information system as well as an instrument for benchmarking and peer learning. The EU Digital Credentials will enable EU citizens who wish it to store and share their credentials. Linked to the EQAR (European Quality Assurance Registrar), it will provide a quality assurance guarantee for learners, educational providers and employers. It is well aligned with the UN Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications which aims to foster mobility.

These developments may have missed the UK press. But there is little doubt of their significance. At a time when many parts of the world are embroiled in civil and political unrest – and intellectual and scientific endeavour and academic freedom are being challenged – no more powerful statements about the role and importance of higher education and research have been made to date by any country or region. They also speak loudly to the EU’s global ambition.

What are the implications for ‘global Britain’?

While the UK has heretofore been an active participant across Europe and beyond, Brexit means that it now sits somewhat estranged.

In addition to the issues raised above, evidence of a shift in fortunes is also visible in research funding. British universities were one of the largest recipients of EU research funding.7 However between 2017 to 2020, the UK dropped from its longstanding joint first to fifth place. By 2020, the UK had won less money and participated in fewer projects than Germany, France, Spain and Italy, and was only just ahead of the Netherlands.8 The redistribution of funding to other member states has been warmly welcomed. It speaks to concerns about over-concentration of research funding and regional disparities – and will be hard to reverse even if/when associate arrangements are agreed.

The UK proposes to replace Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ with Pioneer and Turing, respectively, but neither have the scale or ambition of the EU schemes. The £110 million annual budget for Turing is substantially less than the €26.2 billion Erasmus+ from 2021 to 2027.9 It also compares less favourably with Germany which had €634.7 million available for its mobility programmes in 2021, in addition to Erasmus+.10

While these disparities are often dismissed on the basis that the EU accounted for only 3% of total UK research funding, it is not just the money that is significant. As discussed, the value of partnerships with other leading intellectual and scientific talent, the opportunity to participate in ground-breaking research and innovation and wide-ranging academic and student mobility opportunities within and beyond the EU are incalculable. Also valuable is having a place at the table for wide-ranging policy discussions and the opportunity to help shape the direction of those policies. Despite a lot of nonsense spoken about EU bureaucracy, the EU works via the open method of co-ordination. Higher education institutions and their representative organisations and member states are consulted and participate in a way not readily practised by many national governments. Students have an obligatory seat at the table.

Another chasm has opened around quality assurance, specifically between the QAA and the Office for Students. The UK regulatory system does not require the publication of institutional reviews, the involvement of students on review teams or a cyclical review process. Effectively having a quality assurance system which is seen to be non-compliant with internationally expected standards of independent monitoring threatens the standing of UK universities worldwide.11 This carries huge potential implications for the recruitment of international students and transnational education between English universities and overseas partners.

It is also worth noting the UK has not wholly embraced the expectations of Bologna despite being one of the initiating countries. That it operated a clearly defined BA / MA / PhD framework enabled it to think it was always Bologna compliant.

But noticeably the UK has never fully embraced the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), which enables student mobility, preferring its own formulation. European Digital Credentials are likely to widen the gap further.

These developments reflect an existential divergence between the UK – and England in particular – and the EU especially around values and policy direction. Emphasis on a marketised approach to higher education – what one observer calls ‘selling the student experience’ – is fundamentally contrary to the European view of higher education as a public good. 

The above-mentioned tensions have exacerbated growing differences between the devolved nations, particularly around policy goals and value systems, and relations with the EU. Both Wales and Scotland have been actively promoting a tertiary education perspective, aiming to create a much more learner-centred and value-driven educational system. The former is currently establishing a new Commission on Tertiary Education and Research – based on a study I conducted in 2015 – while the Scottish Funding Council is advancing its ‘strategic, longer-term vision and intent for the future of tertiary education and research’.12 Wales is to be congratulated for the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act (2015) which sets out the visions and values required to underpin all legislation and initiatives. Critically, it is not just nice words; they have a Future Generations Commissioner to oversee compliance.

Geopolitical tensions are challenging trade, technology and supply chains across the world. Demographic shifts, migration, climate change and the changing world of work are undermining the social contract and trust at a global and national level. Many of the values which have been core to higher education over the centuries are being questioned. The UK has a tremendous contribution to make to help in solving many of the world’s societal challenges. Unfortunately, at a time when adherence to the principles of internationalisation, collaboration and scientific exchange is so badly needed, the UK appears to have decided to exit the world stage. Time for a rethink? If so, is there a role here for HEPI?


  1. It was, until 1948, known as the Universities Bureau of the British Empire.
  2. Peter Williams was Chief Executive of QAA, 2002 to 2009, and President of ENQA, 2005 to 2008.
  3. OECD, Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2023, 2023 https:// content/publication/0b55736e-en&_csp_=b2412cc0600196af8b299a715946ac12&itemIGO=oecd&itemContentType=book
  4. OECD,  Indicators. Highlights – March 2022. Paris: Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, p2. sti/msti-highlights-march-2022.pdf
  5. Academic Rankings of World Universities (ARWU), otherwise known as the Shanghai Rankings (, is used here because it uses publicly available data only and is not subject to regular methodological changes experienced by other GURs. It measures research intensity, using indicators such as: peer review papers, citation counts, per capital academic performance, and Nobel Prizes and Field Medals.
  6. European Commission, European Strategy for Universities, 2022 communication-european-strategy-for-universities-graphic-version. pdf; European Commission, Proposal for a Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation, 2022 proposal-for-a-council-recommendation-on-building-bridges-foreffective-european-higher-education-cooperation
  7. The Royal Society, UK research and the European Union: The role of the EU in funding UK research, 2015 policy/projects/eu-uk-funding/uk-membership-of-eu.pdf
  8. Scientists for EU, ‘Brexit disruption and uncertainty cost UK science £1.5B in grants under Horizon 2020’, Viewpoint, 24 June 2021 https://
  9. House of Commons Library, The Turing Scheme, 2022 https://
  10. budget-and-funding-bodies/
  11. Alex Bols, Why it is time for university governors to do more on academic quality, Policy Note 36, July 2022
  12. Welsh Government, ‘Commission for Tertiary Education and Research’;
  13. Royal Society of Edinburgh and Young Academy of Scotland, Tertiary Education Futures, 2023 uploads/2023/03/Tertiary-Educations-Futures-online-report-2023.pdf

1 comment

  1. I enjoyed reading this nicely written article piece. Thank you for writing this. Please keep them coming.

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