A university from outside the United States has topped the QS World University Rankings for the first time since their appearance in 2004. The University of Cambridge tops the global ranking, edging aside Harvard which has led the table since the rankings were inaugurated. Over that time Cambridge has never been rated lower than third and was runner-up in 2006, 2007 and 2009.
In a year when the methodology remained largely unaltered, the change at the top captured international media headlines for the first QS ranking since its dramatic parting of the ways in late 2009 from The Times Higher Education, the UK newspaper with which it had been associated since 2004.
The rankings place three other UK institutions - University College London, Oxford and Imperial College London - in the top seven.
Cambridge was voted the best for research quality in a poll of more than 15,000 academics around the world, QS said. Although Harvard was the most popular among the 5,007 employers polled globally, Cambridge edged ahead overall.
Professor Steve Young, senior pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Cambridge, said: "While university league tables tend to over-simplify the range of achievements at institutions, it is particularly pleasing to note that the excellence of transformative research - research that changes people's lives - carried out at Cambridge is so well regarded by fellow academics worldwide."
In a typically understated Harvard statement to The Guardian, a spokesman said: "Harvard University is always honoured to be recognised among such high calibre institutions of higher learning. However, we also continue to believe it is important that students select the college or university that best suits their individual needs."
QS measures research quality, graduate employability, teaching commitment and international commitment, using a combination of global surveys and audited data, including citation counts.
QS ranks 53 US universities in its top 200. Massachusetts Institute of Technology jumps to 5th from 9th, reflecting a strong performance by technology universities, especially in the QS Global Employer Survey.
Thirty of the top 200 universities are located in the UK. Europe, excluding the UK, has 60 in the top 200. Germany and the Netherlands have 12 each, while France, with just five, trails Switzerland with seven.
Asia, with 32 universities represented, also shows intriguing contrasts. Japan has the most (10) in the top 200, while both Hong Kong and South Korea, each with five, tread closely on the heels of China (six).
Malaysia has no university in the top 200 this year. Commenting on the demotion of the Universiti Malaya from 180th in 2009 to 207th this year, Malaysian higher education minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin told The Star newspaper it was normal to see fluctuation in the rankings.
"We do not want to be obsessive about world rankings," he said.
However, neighbouring Singapore has two and Thailand one. Equally surprisingly, India is represented by only the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (187th), after the IIT Delhi fell to 202nd position against 181st last year.
Australia has eight universities in the top 200, but overall there were more downward than upward moves. Glenn Withers, chief executive of Universities Australia, told the Sydney Herald that Australian universities had a proportionately greater share of the top 500 than any other country. "That is a good affirmation of our standing," he said. "But the signs of slippage are there."
He blamed high student: staff ratios and called on the new minority government led by Julia Gillard to ensure there was no return to reduced public spending.
The Israeli media also bemoaned the poorer performance this year of the country's three leading universities which nevertheless remained in the top 200.
Africa has just one university in the top 200 - the University of Cape Town, down from 146th to 161st.
The global survey of academics has been the most controversial aspect of the QS rankings, partly because it draws on responses submitted not only for 2010 but for 2008 and 2009. The THE has been most critical as it sets about building its own methodology for its rankings, due to be published on 16 September.
In particular, while retaining the reputational survey of academics, it has engaged Ipsos MediaCT to carry out a new Academic Reputation Survey, which attracted 13,388 responses from academics, representative of global scholarship, and allocated a weighting of 34.5%, compared with 40% for the QS survey.
The says it will give greater prominence to teaching with five separate indicators aimed at capturing a sense of the teaching and learning environment which together make up 30% of the total score. Staff-to-student ratios are weighted at only 4.5% as against 20% in the past.