Four of the world’s top 20 universities are in the UK, according to the latest QS World University Rankings that rates institutions by criteria including research quality, citations and graduate employability.

The highest UK ranked institution was Cambridge University, which placed second behind MIT (after being top last year), with UCL in fourth, Oxford in fifth and Imperial College in sixth, giving the UK a remarkable four of the top six places in a world-class field.

Indeed, so strong is the dominance of the English-speaking UK-US-Canada axis dominated the 20, pushing out universities from Europe and Asia.

Globally, there appear to be risers and fallers, at least according to this ranking.

The US continues to impress with its depth taking 130 of the world’s top 700 spots, leaving the relatively small UK sector to cluster among the elite names.

Despite Asia’s modest ranking, China’s large investment programme is starting to pay off, with the country improving the number of universities making it to the ranking. Hong Kong and Australia – also English-speaking – also feature prominently along with Japan while France lags with only one university, ENS Paris, making it into the top 100 for research citations.

The UK’s performance over time has improved markedly; in 2004 only two UK universities made it into the top ten, Cambridge and Oxford.

That is one theme of the ranking – short-terms economic advantages such as those experienced by the so-called ‘BRIC’ nations take a long time to feed through into education, a sector that values factors such as political freedom and economic stability.

Another aspect is the prominence not only of pure science but its applications in technological innovation, something which lies behind MIT’s number one position.

“The rise of MIT coincides with a global shift in emphasis toward science and technology. MIT perfects a blueprint that is now being followed by a new wave of cutting-edge tech-focused institutions, especially in Asia,” said head of QS research, Ben Sowter.

The full ranking can be found here with breakdowns for each institution.