Britain’s top universities are losing ground in the world university rankings because they are forced to focus on diversity and recruiting from disadvantaged backgrounds, experts say.

The country’s best institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge, have been under mounting pressure to recruit more students from ethnic minorities after David Cameron attacked them for racial bias.

Education experts blamed “government interference” on quotas of students from state schools, ethnic minorities and working class backgrounds was hindering the UK’s top universities.

Such pressure is leading universities to take their “eye off the ball” in terms of improving quality of research and teaching, universities have argued.

The UK remains the second-most represented nation in the table of top educators, but has still lost considerable ground this year.

Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: “The UK university system is still punching above its weight, but there are worrying signs that its global standing may be in decline.

“In part, this is because for immigration reasons universities have become less open to students and scholars from around the world.

“But it is also because of Government interference.

“Its current polices are causing universities to take their eye off the ball of recruiting the best to comply with Government demands to increase the proportions entering and graduating from state schools, ethnic minorities and postcodes from which, in the past, few students have come.

“Universities in the United States dominate the rankings because the outstanding fully-independent universities set the pace and most–state as well as private–are well funded, receiving generous donations from former students.”

The comments come after UK universities slipped down in the latest table for the world’s best institutions.

The University of Bristol and Durham University have fallen out of the top 100, bringing the UK’s total number of top universities to 10 for 2016–down from 12 last year.

Cambridge and Oxford remain in the top five, but have both moved down two places on their 2015 ranking.

Imperial College London, University College London, London School of Economics, University of Edinburgh, King’s College London, University of Manchester, London Business School and University of Warwick also made the top 100 global reputation ranking.

The US continues to dominate the Times Higher education (THE) reputation rankings, with the likes of Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Princeton and Yale in top places.

Earlier this year the prime minister announced new laws which will force universities to disclose what proportion of ethnic minority applicants get places and in what subjects. The new rules will require publication of data on applicants, broken down by course, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background.

The decline in British institutions is also partly to do with universities not recruiting enough high-quality staff from abroad due to increasing restrictions on visas.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of universities, said: “While league tables shouldn’t be used in isolation to make judgments about the quality of institutions, the UK has, by any measure, some of the very best universities in the world.

“We outperform many larger nations but this is no time to rest on our laurels. These rankings can be seen as a warning that the rest of the world is catching up with us and Asian universities, in particular, are snapping at our heels.

“We risk losing out on further business and overseas funding unless there is greater investment in our world-class universities and a more risk-based, proportionate approach to regulation.”

Phil Baty, Times Higher Education rankings editor, said: “The UK remains the second most-represented nation in this list of the most reputable universities–behind only the US–but it has lost ground this year. It claims 10 universities in the top 100, down from 12 last year, and seven of these have are ranked in lower positions.

“Even the country’s most prestigious institutions have slipped, with the universities of Cambridge and Oxford each dropping two places to fourth and fifth place respectively. The UK’s diminishing performance occurs as institutions in Asia rapidly rise up the table; the continent has 17 representatives, up from 10 last year.”

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