UK universities continue to achieve out of proportion to the country’s size, placing four universities in the global top ten, with institutions dedicated to science and technology growing in importance, according to the QS World Rankings for 2014.  

It’s habit to interpret this kind of ranking as a national ego contest for elite glory, in which case the US and UK are still dominating proceedings.

The top institution is MIT, as it has been for some years, with the University of Cambridge and Imperial College second equal, Harvard University in fourth and UCL College London and Oxford fifth equal. For three of the top five – six out of the top 20 – to be based in the UK is obviously hugely prestigious, assuming one takes this sort of ranking at face value.

The rest of the top ten comprises (in order), Stanford, Caltech, Princeton, and Yale, more or less the names one might expect.

However, within this list there have been movers which appear to underline the rise in the all-conquering ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) institutions. Yale, for instance, drops two places to tenth, Harvard falls two places to fourth, while other STEM-oriented names move up slightly.

Britain’s other power houses – King’s College, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Bristol, and the University of Manchester – all make it into the top thirty on the back of their science credentials.

Germany is noted for its technological excellence, but on the criteria adopted by QS, its top institution is Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg in 49th place. Asia, meanwhile, now has nine institutions in the top 50.

“In the wake of the recession, both governments and private sector funding  sources have been putting a greater emphasis on high-impact STEM research, much of which takes place in specialist  institutions such as MIT, Imperial College and Caltech,” said QS research head, Ben Sowter.

“Tech-focused institutions are increasingly the focal point of a global race for innovation.”

With the exception of the UK (which now levies tuition fees in England and Wales) , affordable state-funded institutions were also seeing a drop in performance with the highest-ranging US university now Michigan at number 23.

Not all is well in the land of UK STEM. Last week, a poll of Scottish academics found a significant majority in this field planned to vote ‘no’ in the forthcoming referendum because of fears over future science funding, which comes through UK-oriented sources.