British universities have fought off prestigious US rivals to take the top two spots in the world for the first time, according to Times Higher Education (THE).

The University of Oxford came in at number one for the second year in a row while Cambridge jumped three places to take number two.

Last year, Oxford became the first university outside the US to top the Times Higher Education World University Rankings since they began in 2003.

Cambridge rose past CalTech and Stanford University to secure second place.

Research expertise

The THE rankings are based on assessments across teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

By far the biggest factor in the movement in this year’s rankings has been their research income and output.

According to THE, Cambridge’s jump to second place was due to its research income and research quality improving this year, while Caltech and Stanford were hurt by drops to their PhD-to-bachelor student ratios.

Caltech also received a much more modest rise in its research income per academic staff member compared with the other three institutions.

In fact, nearly all of the 62 US universities in the top 200 (more than any other nation) faced drops in their research income per academic staff member.

With uncertainty over future levels of federal research income under the current US administration, this weakening of US dominance could persist.

Equally, there are fears that the position of UK universities at the top may be short-lived: almost a quarter of Cambridge’s research funding and a fifth of Oxford’s comes from the European Union. The UK’s exit from the EU puts that funding in jeopardy.

That said, institutions in North America, Europe and Australia are still overwhelmingly the best centres of academic research, and consequently dominate the top of the overall rankings, as shown by this global heatmap.

Image: THE

Asia rising

While 29 US institutions fell down the rankings, the top Asian universities continued to rise.

Asia’s best placed university, The National University of Singapore, jumped two places to 22nd, putting it level with the University of Toronto.

The Chinese universities of Peking and Tsinghua both rose to 27th and 30th place respectively. This places Peking on a par with New York University and the University of Edinburgh.

Meanwhile the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology completed Asia’s entries in the top 50, rising to 43rd and 49th in the table respectively.

This year is the first time in eight years that three Asian universities have claimed a spot in the top 30, and mainland China has now become the joint sixth most-represented nation in the top 200.

Four of the top five Asian institutions in the rankings have joined other universities in the region to found the Asian University Alliance, which was launched in Beijing earlier this year.

One of the alliance’s key goals is to strengthen research collaboration between Asian universities, and in turn help Asian universities rise further up the international rankings.