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Study abroad : Destination Guides

USA leads in U21 rankings of higher education systems 2020

Not sure how to choose a study abroad program? You can use the U21 rankings to find out which countries were highly rated for international students in 2020.

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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 that work together on shared issues within higher education. The universities who are members of the group come from around the world and include:


Want to know more about how the rankings are developed?

Methodology of the rankings

The best-performing country is given a score out of 100 for each variable and all other countries are then given a score as a percentage of those highest scores. You can find more granular information regarding the rankings and methods used by viewing the full report.


U21 variables

To help you understand the results in these rankings, here is a brief description of the measures used to assess each education system:

  • Resources refer to the input from government or private parties to allow for the proper functioning of a university. For example, the amount of funding provided to universities for research.
  • The environment in this context means the policies in place to enable a university to operate with financial and academic autonomy. This also relates to the institution’s level of diversity such as the number of female students.
  • Connectivity relates to how connected a higher education system is with the rest of society and internationally in terms of its research.
  • The output here encompasses the impact of research, quality of universities and the employability of graduates. For example, what percentage of the population aged 25-64 holds a higher education qualification.


Top 5 overall U21 ranking

The USA, Switzerland, Denmark, Singapore and Sweden rank within the top five positions, which indicates that these countries have some of the strongest education systems in the world.


This is helpful for your research as you can gain a broader sense of the quality of education in each country as opposed to looking only at specific institutions.


top 5 countries for international students

(Source: Universitas 21)


Overall U21 2020 ranking

In the below table you can see the overall ranking which combines the results of the scores gained for each variable. According to this ranking, these countries have some of the best education systems in the world and should be useful to consider when you’re choosing where to study.


Want to start looking for a course? Use our search tool to browse courses by destination.


graph showing top education systems for international students

(Source: Universitas 21)


Top 5 education systems in 2019-2020

However, there have been some noticeable changes since last year’s findings. For example, while the USA remains on top, the UK has dropped from 3rd to 6th place while Denmark has risen from 5th to 3rd.


As with league tables, you should try to base your decision on where to study by considering a range of factors. So, although some countries may show a decline, this does not mean that they’re not worth your time as this is just one way of assessing study destinations and the difference between positions could be minimal.

table which compares 2019 to 2020 rankings

(Source: Universitas 21)


Get started on your university research by comparing the U21 rankings with other league tables.


Or, if you’re not sure where to begin, check out our guide on getting to grips with university league tables.

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