The universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and Aberdeen all dropped places in the 2010 global top-200 list, published today.
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The fall mirrors a general trend, with only five British universities now ranked in the world’s top 50, compared to eight last year.
Established centres of learning were warned they could no longer trade on their past in a global market where other countries such as China, South Korea and Canada are pouring major resources into higher education.
The changes in UK rankings reflect a new method of compiling the list, which places less emphasis on reputation and heritage and more on levels of investment.
It comes at a time of increasing uncertainty over the future funding of higher education across the UK, with dire warnings of cuts of up to one-quarter in public funding and arguments over whether top-up fees should be introduced in Scotland.
Last week, Glasgow University warned in a letter to staff that the institution would run out of money by 2013 unless action was taken to increase income and make savings. Today The Herald reveals it drew up a secret plan in June to cut a raft of subjects to save money -- although the plan has now been dropped.
The latest concern over the future of Scottish institutions to compete on the global stage was sparked by the publication of the annual Times Higher Education Supplement international league tables.
Edinburgh University was the top-ranked Scottish institution after being placed 40th in the world, dropping from 20th last year.
St Andrews came next, but has also slipped, from 87th in 2009 to 103rd -- the first time it has been out of the top 100 since 2006.
Glasgow came third out of the Scottish institutions, ranked 128th, after falling 49 places from 79th last year. Dundee was ranked at 140th, entering the table for the first time since 2007, while Aberdeen came 149th, compared to 129th the previous year.
Overall, Harvard was crowned the world’s best university, followed by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cambridge and Oxford came joint sixth -- the highest-placed British universities.
Professor Anton Muscatelli, principal of Glasgow University, said league tables were just one measure of a university’s achievements.
“Whatever the merits and flaws of any league table, once again it is pleasing to see that there are five Scottish universities ranked among the top 200 in the world,” he said.
“As we enter difficult choices on public spending, this stresses the importance of preserving and investing in our research excellence.”
Dr Wendy Piatt, director-general of The Russell Group of leading UK universities, which includes Glasgow and Edinburgh, said: “The real story behind all world league tables is that our universities still punch way above their weight on the world stage.
“But we will really struggle to sustain this success if we are subject to yet more cuts while our international competitors are pumping billions into their leading universities.”
Susannah Lane, spokeswoman for Universities Scotland, said that while the figures did not necessarily reflect a decline in Scottish higher education, it did reinforce the case for continued public investment.
She said: “It’s not about where we feature on a league table, but it is about our international reputation and that’s based on quality, and to maintain quality we need continued investment. So, this is a bit of a wake-up call.”
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, said: “The simple truth is that countries investing in higher education are being rewarded and they will be the key players in the global knowledge economy.”
Survey editor Phil Baty added: “We contend that these tables are realistic, and so in some cases they may deliver an unpleasant wake-up call that the days of trading on reputation are coming to an end.”
Liz Smith MSP, education spokeswoman for the Conservatives, said that Scotland needed to look to other countries’ models for investment, and Margaret Smith MSP, for the LibDems, said the Scottish Government must continue to invest in universities to maintain their reputation.
Des McNulty, for Labour, said it was “not a good thing” that Scotland had slipped in the rankings but he questioned how comparable the data was to previous years.