Harvard University, which lost the top spot on this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings. (Kelvin Ma/Bloomberg)

For the first time in the eight-year history of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Harvard has been displaced as the world’s top university.

The No. 1 spot in the 2011-12 rankings, released Thursday in Britain, belongs to CalTech.

Adding insult to injury, Harvard must share second place with Stanford.

I don’t have detailed data on hand to explain CalTech’s ascent. Phil Baty, editor of the prestigious global university rankings, said the math-science powerhouse pulled ahead this year because of a slight edge in research output.

“They were pretty much neck-and-neck last year,” he said.

The World University Rankings put a somewhat different spin on academic pedigree than the U.S. News & World Report rankings: the most heavily weighted factors in the global rankings “are all about research,” Baty said, while U.S. News focuses more heavily on selectivity, undergraduate education and financial resources.

Baty’s Top 10: CalTech, Harvard and Stanford (tied), Oxford, Princeton, Cambridge, MIT, Imperial College London, the University of Chicago (a school that is having a banner year in the rankings) and Berkeley.

Yale and Columbia, ranked three and four this year by U.S. News, rank 11 and 12 here. Penn, tied for fifth in U.S. News, settles for 16th.

More interesting, though, are the long-term trends Baty sees in this year’s rankings.

Berkeley falls from eighth to 10th on the global list. UCLA falls from 11th to 13th, the University of Michigan from 15th to 18th, and the University of Washington from 23rd to 25th. These are the nation’s highest-ranked public institutions, and all are losing ground.

“We seem to be looking at the beginning of the decline of the great American public universities,” Baty said.

The same schools have been steadily losing ground in the U.S. News rankings. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau told me U.S. News discriminates against the public flagships by stressing financial resources, which are formidable among Berkeley’s Ivy League competitors, over research output, diversity and other factors in which publics excel.

The same schools fare much better in Baty’s rankings; Berkeley, for example, ranks ahead of Yale and Columbia. Any decline on the global list would seem to suggest that the public flagships are doing less of the things they do well; that, at least, is Baty’s view.

Berkeley and UCLA rate “noticeably lower” in teaching environment, Baty said, a variable that includes academic reputation as well as doctoral degrees and student-faculty ratio.

“It’s the first sign of a worrying trend,” he said.

The United States still has 75 institutions in the Times Higher Education top 200 and seven in the top 10. Last year’s top Asian university, the University of Hong Kong, has plummeted from 21st to 34th. The University of Tokyo is this year’s top Asian institution, at 30.