Three Scottish universities climb up world rankings

Edinburgh University Edinburgh University rose from 21st to 17th place

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A table of the world's top 100 universities showed that three in Scotland had climbed up the rankings.

Edinburgh is now in 17th place, Glasgow is 51st and St Andrews is 83rd on the QS World University list.

Eleven of the top 20 positions are taken by US institutions, but the producers of the table identified that Asian universities were on the rise.

Of the 18 UK universities that made it onto the 100 list, Cambridge, UCL, Imperial and Oxford were in the top 10.

Edinburgh was the only Scottish university in the top 20. However, this is an international survey - and there are some quite interesting international trends too.

Although just over half of the top 20 positions were taken by US universities, the country's dominance has eroded in recent years since the financial crisis.

Of the 83 United States universities in the top 400, 64 had a lower rank than they had five years ago.

The table's producers believe the reason for this may be that many of them have suffered successive government funding cuts.

Most of the 62 Asian institutions in the top 400 rank higher than five years ago, though none is in the top 20 yet.

But just what do these rankings actually tell us? And are they useful for would-be students?

There are several different factors used to calculate them. About 60,000 academics and 28,000 employers across the world contributed towards the results.

The biggest single factor in the calculations is a university's academic reputation. Others include its reputation with employers and international students.

Student experience

But it is important to remember these rankings - or other similar listings - do not offer some objective, black and white list of just how good particular universities are. Rather they are mostly about how the institutions are perceived.

They are important because they help establish and maintain a university's international reputation - and that can be a factor attracting students, academics or research funding.

But what they do not do is say how good a particular course or degree is - or rate the student experience.

And while a high ranking is good for a university's reputation, it is over simplistic to say this just tells us one university is better than another.

Top 20 universities

1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

2. Harvard University

3. University of Cambridge

4. University College London (UCL)

5. Imperial College London

6. University of Oxford

7. Stanford University

8. Yale University

9. University of Chicago

10. California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

10. Princeton University

12. Eth Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology)

13. University of Pennsylvania

14. Columbia University

15. Cornell University

16. Johns Hopkins University

17. University of Edinburgh

17. University of Toronto

19 Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne

19 King's College London

Source: QS World University Rankings 2013

In recent years, there have been concerns over whether Scottish universities would maintain their reputations - the fear was that universities in other parts of the UK, able to charge tuition fees of up to £9,000, would have bigger budgets and attract the best students and staff.

Universities are likely to use figures like today's to offer reassurance that the international reputation of some Scottish universities is not merely being maintained - but is even being enhanced.

That is certainly the view of Sir Timothy O'Shea, principal of the University of Edinburgh. He told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme that tuition fees was not an issue.

He believed the university had a growing reputation which was attracting millions in new research funding.

Sir Timothy said: "We have been recruiting lots of early career researchers, we recruited a cohort of 100 from round the world and more recently with the support of the Scottish government, who co-funded with us, we recruited another 100 early career academics and the work they do - and actually a lot of research our more senior students do - is having a tremendously positively affect on our reputation."

The government's supporters may well argue this shows universities are being properly funded without tuition fees.

But remember this is just one table and not the last word on the subject. And last year several Scottish universities slipped down another prestigious list of the world's best universities.

Explaining exactly why individual institutions have gone up or down the table is not a precise science.

But among the possible factors is research funding.

Sir Timothy explained Edinburgh University's situation: "Funding is doing tremendously well. Two years ago, we were delighted to secure in one year £200m competitive research grants.

"Last year we were amazed when we hit £250m, this year we are on such a very good curve we hit £300m in competitive research grants and that will support work in medicine, in science, in humanities."

Glasgow makes a similar point about funding awards provided to boost research. It also calculates that the university makes an impact of around £500 million on Scotland's gross domestic product - in other words 0.5% of Scotland's GDP.

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