UK universities drop in global innovation rankings

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The potential effects of Brexit on the UK's universities has truly begun to bite – and the situation could further deteriorate.

That is the conclusion of Reuters' third annual ranking of 'Europe’s Most Innovative Universities', in partnership with Clarivate Analytics. 

The list is based on empirical data including patent filings from Derwent Innovation and research paper citations from the Web of Science. It identifies and ranks the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies, and help drive the global economy.

The most innovative university in Europe, for the third year running, is Belgium’s KU Leuven. A Dutch-speaking school based in Belgium’s Flanders region, KU Leuven was founded in 1425 by Pope Martin V and continually produces a high volume of influential inventions. 

Overall, the most elite ranks of Europe’s Most Innovative Universities held steady from last year. The UK’s Imperial College London and University of Cambridge hold onto their respective second and third spots for the third straight year. Other leading institutions simply traded a few spaces, like the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (up one at four), University of Erlangen Nuremberg (up one at five), and the Technical University of Munich (down two at six).

The overall trend is most clear in the sum of changes in rank for each country’s institutions: the 23 German universities on this year’s list rose 23 spots, more than any other country. Switzerland was second, with five universities up a total of eight spots.

In contrast, the list’s 21 UK-based universities dropped a cumulative 35 spots. The introduction to the ranking concludes that while the United Kingdom’s Brexit from the European Union is almost a year away, Europe’s scientific community may already be leaving the UK in favour of research institutions on the continent. A February 2018 study published by the UK-based Centre for Global Higher Education reports that many German academics view Brexit as an 'advantage', and hope to use it to attract UK researchers to German universities. In turn, UK academics report that their own postdoctoral researchers aren’t seeking positions in the UK and are looking at the EU or United States instead.

According to Reuters, as Brexit unfolds the situation could get worse: a November 2017 study performed by the School of International Futures for the UK’s Royal Society describes a possible post-secession United Kingdom where universities compete for a shrinking pool of skilled workers, projects that used to receive EU funding wither, researchers receive fewer invites to join consortia and attend conferences, and overseas collaboration is limited. 

Similarly, EU-based businesses that fund research at universities may prefer to keep their investments within the region in order to avoid the tax and regulatory headaches of working with post-Brexit UK institutions.

For more on the Reuters Top 100: Europe’s Most Innovative Universities, including a detailed methodology and profiles of the universities, visit