Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Internationally collaborative, but for how much longer? Inside the 2025 QS World University Rankings

  • 5 June 2024
  • By Ben Sowter
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Ben Sowter, Senior Vice-President at QS Quacquarelli Symonds. QS is a partner of HEPI.

Accounting for the sentiment of 175,000 academic faculty members and 105,000 employers, and analysing the distribution and performance of 17 million research papers, the QS World University Rankings offers an annual audit of the world’s 1500 top universities. With these universities residing in 106 national and territorial higher education systems, they also offer a unique opportunity to assess how British higher education is faring, relative to its global peers. 

Though there are success stories at the very top – Imperial College London has risen to take the global number-two spot, and three of the top five universities worldwide are British – the overall results indicate that British higher education is struggling in the face of increasingly urgent funding shortages – with suggestions that 40% of UK universities could face the prospect of budget deficits this year – and both restrictions and ambiguity facing the status of international students.  

This is troubling because much of the UK’s success is driven by the country’s long-standing commitment to internationalism. The UK is one of the world’s most collaborative countries for cross-border research, contributing four of the world’s top 10 universities in QS’ International Research Network metric, more than any other country. This includes the world’s two most internationally collaborative research institutions: the University of Oxford in first, and UCL in second.

The International Research Network indicator remains the only one in which a majority of UK universities have recorded improvements year-on-year, and the UK produces 58% of its research alongside international collaborators, nearly triple the global average (21%). 

Britain sits behind only China and the US for research citation counts and the proportion of its research published in the most influential academic publications over the past five years, indicating that its research remains world-leading. Of the UK’s total research output, 38% is published in the world’s top journals, as defined by Citescore, ahead of both the US (35%) and China (29%). 

There is a strong and well-established relationship between levels of international collaboration and research quality and impact. With British universities increasingly losing ground in other key pillars of QS’s ranking – including Employment Outcomes, Academic Standing, and Faculty/Student Ratio – relative levels of research excellence, and a reputation for internationalism, are areas of differentiation that the sector cannot afford to squander. 

This year’s results indicate that British universities are already seeing their exceptional relative levels of internationalisation under threat. 82% of the UK’s featured institutions have seen their International Faculty Ratio scores decline year-on-year, while approximately three-quarters (74%) have recorded lower scores in the International Student Ratio indicator. 

The uniform downward trend in both indicators will not be improved by intentions to restrict student visa provision – which has already had a measurable negative impact upon enrolments – and the snowball effects threaten to leave British higher education spiralling towards terminal decline. Over 50 British universities have already sent out a negative signal regarding the condition of the academic job market – and their commitment to increasing teaching capacity – by announcing job cuts, which have been directly attributed to enrolment drops occurring as a direct result of recently-announced policy.  It is easy to see how this process will lead to the hollowing out of British higher education. As faculty jobs disappear as a result of declining student enrolments – and universities reliant upon the economic impact of international student mobility increasingly struggle financially – some institutions could well be forced to close. According to John Rushforth at the Committee of University Chairs, university bankruptcy is a realistic and pressing possibility: almost half of university Vice-Chancellors expect their institution to run at a loss this year. 

Universities UK International and QS have recently published the “International Graduates Outcomes 2024 Report” with data from more than 10,000 international students who graduated from 37 UK universities over the past six years. The report highlights that through post-study work, international graduates add value to sectors that are vital to the UK economy. Graduates on the Graduate route visa contribute significantly to the UK economy, with many working in key sectors such as healthcare and education. The report also finds that international graduates will continue to support the UK economy on returning home. 71% of surveyed graduates feel a lasting connection with the UK, and 57% are more likely to engage in business with the UK due to their educational experiences.  Ensuring that the UK remains a premier and highly attractive study destination is essential in the current fiercely competitive global education market, particularly as higher education represents one of the UK’s most valuable export sectors at a time when the UK needs globally competitive industries to sustain local economies.

For those British universities that continue operating, it is unlikely that peer closures and declining faculty and student flows will send out a positive signal to the international education community that has long placed the United Kingdom at the very top of its preferred destination list. The concern will be that this leads to further recruitment troubles, which result in ever-increasing class sizes and less quality access to faculty members from students. 

While shifts in course delivery to hybridised and online models can mitigate faculty resource constraints, it can only do so much – investment in high-quality teaching is necessary for universities to thrive and for students to derive value from their higher education experience. A higher education system increasingly struggling to navigate budgetary deficits is at risk of failing to deliver on multiple fundamental pillars of its mission statement. 

Whatever the result of July’s election, the latest edition of the QS World University Rankings makes it clear that the next British government must make a properly resourced, internationally-open continually championed higher education sector an urgent policy priority. British higher education is one of the UK’s great assets and achievements and must be maintained accordingly.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *