PUPILS and parents in Britain will have been bracing themselves for today's release of Alevel examination results. In a sense few have anything to worry about because apparently some 97 per cent of the 265'257 who sat the examination this year have achieved a pass grade. There's a discussion to be held about that remarkable, even incredible, outcome but it can wait for another day. The more immediate point is that results of this kind put enormous pressure on the top universities which find it difficult to select those most likely to benefit from what they have to offer. Almost 500'000 students have applied for a university place in the autumn and Oxford and Cambridge say that on the basis of preliminary selection they have already rejected some 10'000 applicants likely to get three grade-A passes. The desire for a place at Britain's best universities is very strong despite the financial implications involved, both immediately for parents and in the longer term for the students themselves. But the demand is wholly understandable. This week the Shanghai Jiao Tong University published its annual ranking of the top 500 universities in the world: Harvard came first, as it did last year, but Cambridge was second and Oxford 10th. All the others in the top ten were American as were the next nine. In 20th and 22nd place were Tokyo and Kyoto universities and in 23rd and 26th Imperial College London and University College London. The Shanghai Univerity which undertakes this annual rankings takes into account a wide range of criteria, including academic and research performance and the number of alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and other prestigious awards. In other words, this league table is a good indicator of a university's standing in the world and it is greatly to the credit of both Cambridge and Oxford that they hold places in the top ten among American universities that are vastly better funded. It is remarkable that the only non-British European university in the top 30 of this list is the Swiss Federal Institute of Technolocy in Zurich, placed 27th.


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