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British university rankings slip amid Brexit questions

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/ File

(Read caption) People, mostly tourists, walk down the street in front of the University of Cambridge's Kings College, on April 17, 2016, in Cambridge, England. The university is ranked fourth in QS's recent ranking of global universities.

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As Britain continues forward with its narrowly voted-in referendum to exit the European Union, one of the most recent side-effects of the controversial decision has been the impact on the United Kingdom’s higher education system, as uncertainty sets in over long-term research funding and the unknown impact of potential immigration practices.

In the latest rankings of international higher education institutions, 38 of the 48 British universities in the top 400 worldwide fell overall, with the University of Cambridge dropping from its spot in the top three for the first time since the QS World University Rankings began back in 2004. Cambridge, University of Oxford, University College London, and Imperial College London remained in the international top ten, but overall, British institutions took a hit, especially compared to the consistent rise of both American and Chinese universities.

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Although the rankings were compiled before the vote itself, uncertainties about Britain's future in the EU likely contributed to the drop in rankings, QS said. 

"Uncertainty over research funding, immigration rules, and the ability to hire and retain the top young talent from around the world seems to be damaging the reputation of the UK’s higher education sector," said Ben Sowter, the head of research at QS, according to The Guardian.

The recent rankings follow a July survey from an education consultancy, Hobsons, which showed that 30 percent of prospective international students said they were less likely to study in the UK after its Brexit vote, with a further 6 percent stating that they would definitely not chose a British school. The Hobsons survey showed that nearly two-thirds of the students questioned were concerned about difficulties obtaining a student visa, as The Financial Times reported, and half felt they had a slimmer chance of obtaining employment in Britain after graduating.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, academic researchers in Britain's esteemed university system have voiced worries about funding, as EU-funded consortiums began withdrawing opportunities for British scientists. Uncertainty about how much funding to anticipate has led to suggestions that some EU-based projects are removing British researchers from prominent roles, or excluding them altogether.

In the QS Rankings, American institutions saw their ratings improve: Of the 78 US universities in the top 400, nearly half saw their ranking rise.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford University, and Harvard University now occupy the top three slots. Chinese universities also did well, with three institutions in the global top 50. 

"While high levels of national investment and dedicated programs such as Russia's 5-100 initiative and China's 211 and 985 projects appear to be paying off, other nations are struggling to keep pace," QS notes in a release. 

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If international students' interest in British institutions dims – taking their often-high tuition dollars with them – they may look beyond the EU. Thirty-two percent said they would favor Canada, while 21 percent selected Germany, and 20 percent were interested in either the United States or Australia. 

Meanwhile London Mayor Sadiq Khan plans to ensure that the city's status as a top educational destination remains untouched. "I'm saying loud and clear to the world that London is open as the best place to study, do business, and innovate, and a city where all Londoners can take advantage of these opportunities," said Mr. Khan, according to the Independent.