The basics
STUDY ABROAD : Destination Guides - Must read

Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021: Top universities worldwide

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.

share image

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, internationalisation 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 centred 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 individualised attention students receive at these universities. 


Which universities are in the top 50?


To kick off let’s take a look at the universities who took spots 11 to 25. The rankings feature eight universities from the U.S., two from the UK, two from China and one from Switzerland and Singapore respectively. One of the notable inclusions was Imperial College London that dropped out of the top ten to sit in 11th spot and a two ranking spot rise for the University of California, Los Angeles to 15th. Places 11 to 25 went to:


11. Imperial College London (UK)

12. Johns Hopkins University (US)

13. University of Pennsylvania (US)

14. ETH Zurich (Switzerland)

15. University of California, Los Angeles (US)

16. UCL (UK)

17. Columbia University (US)

18. University of Toronto (Canada)

19. Cornell University (US)

20. Tsinghua University (China) 

21. Duke University (US) (= 20th)

22. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (US)

23. Peking University (China)

24. Northwestern University (US)

25. National University of Singapore (Singapore)


Looking at the universities that are ranked between 26 and 50 you will notice that there is more diversity to the countries that are represented. Although the institutions in the United States still dominate, with nine universities ranked, there are also universities from the UK, Germany, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Belgium, Japan, Hong Kong, France, Switzerland and Singapore. The universities ranked 26 to 50 are:


26. New York University (US)

27. London School of Economics and Political Science (UK)

28. Carnegie Melon University (US)

29. University of Washington (US)

30. University of Edinburgh (UK)

31. University of Melbourne (Australia)

32. LMU Munich (Germany)

33. University of California, San Diego (US)

34. University of British Columbia (Canada)

35. King’s College London (UK)

36. Karolinska Institute (Sweden)

37. The University of Tokyo (Japan)

38. Georgia Institute of Technology (US)

39. University of Hong Kong (Hong Kong)

40. McGill University (Canada)

41. Technical University Munich (Germany)

42. Heidelberg University (Germany)

43. École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (France)

44. University of Texas, Austin (US)

45. KU Leuven (Belgium)

46. Paris Sciences et Lettres - PSL Research University Paris (France)

47. Nanyang Technological University (Singapore)

48. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (US)

49. University of Wisconsin, Madison (US)

50. Washington University in St Louis (US)


The 2021 rankings saw a gain for New York University which jumped three spots to 26, while the Hong Kong University of Technology and Australia National University dropped out of the top 50. There were also an additional 141 new entries onto the rankings in 2021, of which Paris-Saclay University in France was the top rated, sitting at number 178. If you want to check out what other rankings and league tables have to say be sure to take a look at our articles on the QS World University Rankings, WhatUni Student Choice Awards, Complete University Guide League Tables and U21 Higher Education System rankings


Now that you have a better idea of which destinations and universities received the plaudits, as well as how they were judged you’ll have very useful insights to inform your own decision making. 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, how to use league tables and reviews to inform your study choices and how to research universities online. You may also find our course matcher tool useful in determining a good course and university match for you. 



Must read

Top 10 UK universities in the 2020 Guardian league table

You might be wondering; where do I begin with my university research? Well, one great way to start is by using league tables which assess and compare different institutions based on a variety of factors such as teaching quality, student satisfaction and graduate outcomes.   The Guardian’s latest league table for 2020 could be a useful resource for you if you’re thinking of studying in the UK. Find out which universities have risen in the ranks – and


USA leads in U21 rankings of higher education systems 2020

In this article we take a look at the ninth annual ranking of 50 national higher education systems, conducted by Universitas 21 (U21). These rankings are designed to help you discover and investigate which countries may be best for your studies. We recommend using these rankings in combination with other university league tables to make an informed decision.   What is Universitas 21? Universitas 21 is a group of research-focused universities who


Find a student lifestyle that suits you best

Finding a university and a course that you like is usually the first hurdle when embarking on a study abroad adventure. Yet, another important consideration is the type of experience and lifestyle that you’re looking for. It’s easy to get caught up in the global reputation of an institution and the teaching quality of a course, but your learning environment is equally vital. It could be the difference between an enriching or disappointing study abroad experience.