Top Universities in the World: Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021 evaluated over 1,500 institutions from around the world to create a comprehensive rating for universities. We explore and analyse the results.

The highly anticipated Time Higher Education (THE) World University rankings 2021 have been revealed. The 2021 edition represents the most extensive evaluation of higher learning institutions around the world for the THE rankings. With a focus on inclusion and diversity THE examined over 1,500 universities in 93 countries across the world. Sometimes it can seem challenging to make sense of what it all means, how the rankings are calculated and which study destinations performed best. We’ve got the inside information for you with an analysis of the top performers, the up and comers and how judgement is passed on the institutions. 

Which universities ranked in the top 10?

It was once again a battle of the perennial high achievers in the UK and U.S. with an arm wrestle for first place between the University of Oxford and Stanford University, with the former bagging the top honour for 2021. This is the fifth year in a row that sees the UK institution lead the pack, however for Stanford University it represents a two-place improvement from 2020, knocking last year’s second placed institution, the California Institute of Technology, out of the runners-up spot. Third place for 2021 was awarded to another Ivy League institution the U.S., namely Harvard University, who saw their stock rise considerably from a disappointing 7th spot in 2020. Rounding out the top five were another pair of universities from the U.S., with California Institute of Technology sitting in fourth and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in fifth. 

The 2021 rankings reveal a strong showing for institutions in the U.S. with eight of the top ten institutions being based in the country. The UK also features significantly in the top 20 global universities with four institutions making the list. One of the biggest jumps in the top 20 was for the University of California Berkeley who moved from 15th in the previous rankings to 7th for 2021.

Significantly three institutions from Asia remain in the top 25 in 2021 including Tsinghua University (+20), Peking University (23) and National University of Singapore (25). Tsinghua University rose from 23rd spot in 2020 to take up a position in the top 20 for the first time, while Peking University improved by one spot. The top ten universities in the world for 2021, according to the THE World University, are:

1. University of Oxford (UK)

2. Stanford University (US)

3. Harvard University (US) 

4. California Institute of Technology (US)

5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US)

6. University of Cambridge (UK)

7. University of California Berkeley (US)

8. Yale University (US)

9. Princeton University (US)

10. University of Chicago (US)

How are the rankings calculated? 

The THE World University Rankings use 13 key indicators by which a university is assessed, judged and evaluated. They are designed to examine a university’s performance in the critical areas of teaching, research, internationalization and knowledge transfer. The rankings also conduct extensive interviews with students, over 22,000 worldwide, and research university citations, which for the 2021 rankings amounted to over 80 million. 

The indicators used by THE are divided into five areas each weighted with a relative percentage:

  • Teaching (which evaluates the learning environment) 30%
    • Reputation survey (15%)
    • Student to staff ratio (4.5%)
    • Doctorate to bachelor’s student ratio (2.25%)
    • Doctorates awarded to academic staff (6%)
    • Institutional income (2.25%)
  • Research (30%)
    • Reputation survey (18%)
    • Research income (6%)
    • Research productivity (6%)
  • Citations (influence of research) 30%
  • International Outlook (7.5%)
    • Proportion of international students (2.5%)
    • Proportion of international staff (2.5%
    • International collaboration (2.5%)
    • Industry income (transfer of knowledge) 2.5%

It’s clear from the top-ranked institutions that being able to maintain a high academic standard and reputation is essential. Universities that find a balance between teaching and quality, influential research, with a focus on student centered curricula tend to perform better.

The top three institutions in the world all scored extremely highly in the teaching and research (including citations) categories. What is also notable is that the University of Oxford scored very highly when it came to a positive international outlook. This is something that marks UK institutions out with both Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge having a significant number of international students. In addition, seven of the top ten institutions boasted student to staff ratios of lower than 10:1, underlining the individualized attention students receive at these universities. 

Don’t forget that league tables are not the final authority on whether a university is worth attending, but a useful way of evaluating potential options in combination with other factors. Be sure to check out our guide on how to understand league tables and how to research universities online. You may also take advantage of our free consultation service to receive expert advice on suitable course and university for you.