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Ask an American to name the world's best colleges, and Ivy League schools are likely to be the first to come to mind. Harvard, Princeton and Yale are just a few of the prestigious universities that are recognized the world over for their academic excellence. Yet, in a recent report of the world's best universities, it wasn't a U.S. college that came out on top. No, that honor went to the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

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UK home to world's No. 1 university, and more

U.S. News and World Report (usnews.com) is well known for its annual rankings of the nation's best colleges. However, the magazine recently teamed up with career and education firm QS to compile a list of 400 of the world's best universities. Not only did the University of Cambridge come out on top, but four of the seven best institutions in the world are in the U.K.

The British universities included in the college rankings' top 10 include both world renowned schools as well as lesser-known institutions:

  • University of Cambridge – #1
  • University of Oxford – #5
  • Imperial College London – #6
  • University College London – #7

To create the rankings, QS scored schools for six criteria including academic reputation and faculty-to-student ratios. After Cambridge, Harvard ranked second while Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale took the third and fourth spots.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. was the most heavily represented in the college rankings. Of the 400 top universities, 85 are in the U.S., representing 21 percent of the list. However, the much smaller U.K. comes in second with 43 universities, representing 11 percent of the worldwide total.

QS college rankings reward individualized instruction

Those familiar with the British educational system say it's no surprise that U.K. universities rank so well. While U.S. institutions focus on research and may garner more press, observers say the U.K.'s focus on specialized education means students get the advantage of better faculty-student ratios and a teaching culture that provides greater individual attention.

"It might be a surprise to some people that the four leading U.K. universities feature so highly, if only because of the superior financial clout of U.S. private institutions," said Danny Byrne, editor of TopUniversities.com, a QS website.

According to Byrne, while other rankings of the world's best colleges have looked at research output, the QS analysis considered not only research but also teaching, employability and international outlook. Using these criteria, U.K. universities rise to the top. Still, Byrne notes that in terms of numbers, the U.S. remains the dominant country for top universities.

"While the top four U.K. universities rank very highly, in terms of the number of world-class institutions, the U.S. remains miles ahead," said Byrne. "There are 13 U.S. universities in the top 20, compared to five from the U.K."

U.S. vs. U.K. college experience

Christina Farr is a dual U.S./U.K. citizen who has earned degrees in both countries. A public relations associate with the communications firm Global Fluency, Farr earned an undergraduate degree in history from University College London before attending Stanford for graduate studies in journalism.

"I'm not surprised so many of the top universities are in the U.K.," said Farr. "The universities here in the U.S. covet media spotlight and develop a name for themselves internationally. In the U.K., the universities are less willing to covet the attention of the press."

Although happy with her experience at Stanford--ranked 11th on the list of world's best universities--Farr notes the experience at UCL was far different.

"At UCL, we only had roughly eight hours per week of class time," said Farr. "At American universities, the class time is far more intensive and students develop strong bonds with professors."

While U.S. degree programs tend to expose students to coursework in a range of subjects, including those outside a student's major, U.K. students tend to specialize in only one or two subjects from a young age. In Farr's case, that meant she took her last math and science classes in high school at age 16.

Changes coming to U.K. universities

The release of the college rankings comes at a time when U.K. universities are preparing for a dramatic shift in their tuition structure. While universities had previously received the bulk of their funding from the government, those costs are now being shifted to students in an attempt to reduce a national budget deficit. The result has been the implementation of tuition fees for U.K. students of up to £9,000, or approximately $14,000.

"The full effects of the funding switch remain to be seen, but there is potential for both positive and negative effects on the institutions themselves," said Byrne. "The higher fees were supposed to ensure that the income of U.K. universities was sustainable in a context of an expansion in enrollment and a pinched economy."

Byrne suggests the government's withdrawal of most direct funding may end up being a positive for prestigious universities which have access to other sources of income. Lesser known universities, on the other hand, might have difficulty attracting students and maintaining the quality of their programs. Already, the Universities and Colleges and Admissions Service has reported a 12 percent decline in the number of U.K.-born students applying for admission for next September.

Study abroad in Britain

Although the changes in tuition signal a significant departure from the status quo for U.K. students, they should have minimal effect on overseas students who were already responsible for paying their own tuition costs.

"It's a little known fact that Americans are more likely to be admitted to a U.K. university than their British counterparts," said Farr. "The fees are higher for internationals, and the U.K. universities place an extremely high premium on diversity."

Farr also says U.S. students should study abroad in U.K. for an experience that simply can't be replicated stateside.

"Another bonus is the long weekends you'll spend in Paris and your travels to Barcelona on a whim," said Farr. "You'll be exposed to history, art and culture like never before."

So there are high quality education programs, individualized instruction and the opportunity to explore some of the most fascinating places on earth. And that is what's so awesome about U.K. universities.



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