Asia rises, US, UK, Europe decline in new QS rankings

Asian universities have gained ground with record representation in the top 100, while the United States, United Kingdom and other European countries have seen an overall decline in performance in the Quacquarelli Symonds or QS World University Rankings 2021, a trend which Ben Sowter, QS director of research, says “reflects the increasing competitiveness of the global higher education landscape”.

This year’s instalment of the rankings sees Asian universities enjoy a greater presence among the global top 100 than at any point in the ranking’s 17-edition history. There are now 26 Asian universities achieving top-100 ranks.

These 26 institutions are split between mainland China and South Korea (six each), Hong Kong and Japan (five each), Singapore (two), and Malaysia and Taiwan (one each).

At the same time, 112 of America’s 153 ranked universities fall, with only 34 recording improvements. This is primarily due to collective relative decline in measures of academic standing and research impact.

Sowter said: “The American higher education hegemony continues to diminish in the face of increasing competitiveness across the world: a competitiveness driven by strategic funding, internationalisation efforts, and strong links between education and industry.”

However, the UK also had a bad year, with three-quarters or 63 of the 84 of its ranked institutions declining.

Some 55% of Europe’s 408 ranked universities fell this year, including more than half of Germany’s universities.

Looking at individual performances, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is named the world’s best university for a record-breaking ninth consecutive year. The top three institutions remain American: MIT is followed by Stanford University (second) and Harvard University (third).

Britain’s top institution is the University of Oxford, which falls to fifth. Its compatriot competitor, the University of Cambridge, remains seventh.

Continental Europe’s best university remains ETH Zurich at sixth. Asia’s top university is the National University of Singapore (11th), while China’s Tsinghua University has reached a new all-time high (15th). Latin America’s leader is the Universidad de Buenos Aires (66th, up eight places).

Five Australian universities are named among the global top 50. This tally is bettered only by the United Kingdom (eight top-50 universities) and the United States (17 top-50 universities).

Universities in Russia and Malaysia continue to rise, with Lomonosov Moscow State University (74th) and Universiti Malaya (59th) reaching record highs; while Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (100th) has become the first Mexican university to achieve a top-100 place.

Sowter describes Russia as “one of contemporary higher education’s success stories” and Malaysia as being in the ascendancy with “the reputation of local universities growing steadily among the international academic community and global employers”.

Not all countries in Asia did well. India in particular suffered a poor year, with two-thirds of its 21 ranked universities declining, while only four made improvements. Japan also experienced more drops (22) than rises (17).

It has been a good year for universities in the Middle East, with consistent improvements and a record-breaking six institutions in the top 250.

Sowter said: “This year’s edition of the QS World University Rankings offers further evidence of a continued shift in the global education hierarchy.

“Asia’s record number of top-100 universities is one example. The continued strength we see in Russia and Malaysia is another.

“And the remarkable rise of universities across the Middle East provides further indication that higher education has never been so competitive.”

Below is a region by region round-up.


This year’s instalment sees no increase in African representation among the published top 1,000, while South Africa’s University of Johannesburg is the only one of the continent’s universities to have improved its position over the last year. It has broken into the top 500, now 439th.

The continent’s leading institution remains – by some distance – the University of Cape Town. However, it has lost its top-200 place for the first time, and now ranks 220th, with its previous low of 200th attained in 2019.

South Africa and Egypt are the only two African nations to enjoy representation among the top 1,000: seven South Africa institutions feature, alongside four Egyptian universities. Egypt’s national leader is the American University in Cairo, which falls out of the top 400 (joint 411th, down 16 places).

The dataset is not universally negative. Three of Egypt’s four ranked universities improve their Academic Reputation score, while the American University in Cairo has remained stable in this indicator. In addition, five of South Africa’s seven institutions have improved their Citations per Faculty score, used by QS to calculate institutional research impact.

The primary issue for the South African universities ranked by QS is employer recognition, with all seven of South Africa’s entrants receiving a lower Employer Reputation score this year.

The top 10 African institutions were: University of Cape Town, South Africa (220=); University of Witwatersrand, South Africa (403=); the American University in Cairo, Egypt (411=); University of Johannesburg, South Africa (439=); Stellenbosch University, South Africa (456=); Cairo University, Egypt (561-570); University of Pretoria, South Africa (561-570); Ain Shams University, Egypt (801-1000); Alexandria University, Egypt (801-1000); and Rhodes University, South Africa (801-1000).


In total, 233 Asian universities were placed among the global top 1,000 and 113 improved in rank, while 101 declined.

The continent’s leading institution remains the National University of Singapore (11th), but it is joined in the top 20 by compatriot Nanyang Technological University (13th, down two places) and China’s Tsinghua University (15th). There are also rises for the University of Hong Kong (22nd, a record high) and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (27th, up five places).

This year sees three top Chinese universities reach their highest-ever position in the history of QS’s rankings.

Tsinghua University has improved on last year’s record-breaking performance by rising from 16th to 15th, primarily due to improvements in its academic standing and research impact: a result that also places it third among Asian universities. Also reaching unprecedented heights are Fudan University – which has risen from 40th to 34th – and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which, in placing 47th, enters the global top 50 for the first time.

Further down the rankings, QS continues to find evidence of the increasing strength of the Chinese higher education sector. Nine Chinese higher education institutions enter the top 1,000 this year – increasing mainland Chinese representation from 42 universities to 51.

Of 51 universities from mainland China, 15 improved their position in the rankings, nine are new entrants, and 17 have declined in rank.

Sowter said the Chinese had recognised early on that intense, targeted strategic investment in specific universities would help to create a world-class higher education sector, but he suggested they could do more to work with industry to prepare students for the 21st century workplace.

He said Hong Kong’s universities appear resilient but the depth of the impact of the protests in the autumn and the coronavirus pandemic since then is as yet unknown.

Malaysian universities, meanwhile, have continued to improve their performance. Also reaching a historical peak position is Universiti Malaya (59th, up 11 places), having improved its performance in four of the six indicators used by QS to compile the ranking, and now achieving top-100 scores in both of QS’s reputational metrics.

Twelve Malaysian universities have improved their year-on-year rank, primarily due to improvements in recognition among both the global academic community and students surveyed by QS.

Sowter said: “The ascendancy of the Malaysian universities in our rankings is the result of concerted efforts and sustained investment.

“According to the Ministry of Education, last year 19.1% of total government spending was allocated to education. The research and development budget was also increased.”

He said Malaysian universities are maintaining “commendable levels of teaching resources as measured by our faculty-student ratio”. When it comes to research intensity and impact, the best national performer is Universiti Malaya (241st), followed by Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (461st).

“To make manifest their lofty ambitions, Malaysia must continue to seek research excellence while not sacrificing this commitment to high teaching capacity,” Sowter said.

After some stagnant years, QS records some positive movements from the South Korean higher education sector. Eight of South Korea’s 10 best universities have improved their position over the last year. Yonsei University (85th) breaks into the top 100, and KAIST (39th) reaches its highest-ever position.

For Japan, the highlight in a bad year is the University of Tokyo (24th) which retains its outstanding research footprint: no Asian university has recorded a higher citations count than the University of Tokyo over the five-year window used by QS to compile the rankings, and its total is bettered by only five universities globally.

Contradicting the continental cohort’s trend is India, which struggles to avoid sliding downwards. Though three Indian institutes place among the top 200, two-thirds of India’s 21 ranked universities have declined over the past year, while only four make improvements.

India’s higher education sector remains characterised by relative overperformance in QS’s research impact indicator but is hampered by poor faculty-student ratio scores and low levels of internationalisation relative to regional and global competitors, QS says.

“To regain lost ground, Indian higher education must find ways of increasing teaching capacity, and of attracting more talented students and faculty across the world to study in India,” Sowter said.

The top 10 Asian institutions were: National University of Singapore (11th); Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (13th); Tsinghua University, China (15th), University of Hong Kong (22nd), Peking University, China (23rd); the University of Tokyo, Japan (24th); the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (27th=); Fudan University, China (34th); Seoul National University, South Korea (37th); and Kyoto University, Japan (38th).


Europe’s leading institution remains the University of Oxford, which has fallen from fourth to fifth. Also in the top 10 are Switzerland’s ETH Zurich (sixth, continental Europe’s best university), Imperial College London (eighth), and UCL (10th).

Despite its overall decline, Europe still contributes more universities to the global top 1,000 than any other continent. It possesses more than five times as many ranked universities as Latin America and more than twice as many as the US and Canada. It also contributes more universities to the top 100 (34) than any other continent (Asia contributes 26 and the US and Canada 30).

The two predominant reasons for the UK’s declining ranks are consistent decreases in teaching capacity and research impact. Of the UK’s 84 ranked institutions, 66 have seen their Faculty-Student Ratio score decline over the last twelve months, while 59 have seen their score for QS’s measure of research quality, Citations per Faculty, drop.

Sowter warned that investment in teaching capacity would serve the British higher education sector well and help it to regain lost ground.

“So, too, would concerted efforts to ensure that Britain continues to remain an attractive place for talented academics and students to study in the future, and a national desire to continue collaborating with our European and global partners on transformative research projects.

“Rising in our rankings is no accident – it is the consequence of long-term investment in a country’s educational fortunes,” he said.

However, the UK still retains 18 institutions among the global top 100, a figure which has not changed in five years and is only bettered by the US (with 27), which has a far larger higher education sector.

Of Germany’s 45 ranked universities, 25 decline and 18 improve their position, although Germany’s Technische Universität München (50th) breaks into the top 50 for the first time and offers its home nation top-50 representation for the first time since 2015.

Switzerland continues to offer Europe’s highest concentration of world-class universities, with eight of its 10 ranked universities achieving top-300 places.

Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) has risen to 14th, while the University of Zurich (69th) makes inroads within the top 100.

Only six institutions in Europe record a higher citations footprint than ETH Zurich, four of them in the United Kingdom. Among continental Europe’s universities, ETH Zurich is outperformed only by Denmark’s University of Copenhagen (76th overall, up five places) and France’s Université de Paris – both of which possess significantly higher faculty numbers than ETH Zurich.

France’s fortunes continue to flounder: while three French universities retain top-100 places, 19 of 28 drop in rank, and the country’s higher education institutions record more drops than rises in all six of the indicators used by QS to compile the rankings.

Further east, the major narrative remains Russia’s relentless rise: Lomonosov Moscow State University reaches an all-time high of 74th, and all of Russia’s 14 highest-ranked universities are seeing their positions improve.

“This year’s edition of the QS World University Rankings continues to make it abundantly clear that Russia is one of contemporary higher education’s success stories, with its top universities boasting small class sizes and increasing global reputation,” Sowter said.

There are positive performances from other nations in Russia’s environs: the Czech Republic’s leader, Charles University, reaches 260th position, and Belarus State University (317th) also finds itself at newfound heights.

Europe’s top 10 performers are mostly from the UK: University of Oxford, UK (fifth); ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) (sixth); University of Cambridge, UK (seventh); Imperial College London, UK (eighth); UCL (University College London), UK (10th); EPFL, Switzerland (14th); University of Edinburgh, UK (20th); the University of Manchester, UK (27th=); King’s College London, UK, (31st=); and London School of Economics and Political Science, UK (49th).

By contrast continental Europe’s top 10 performers are: ETH Zurich (sixth); EPFL, Switzerland (14th); Technische Universität München, Germany (50th); Université PSL (Paris Sciences et Lettres), France (52nd); Delft University of Technology, Netherlands (57th); University of Amsterdam, Netherlands (61=); Ecole Polytechnique, France (61=); Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany (63rd); Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg, Germany (64th); and University of Zurich, Switzerland (69=).

Latin America

Two Latin American universities were named in the global top 100 – a new record.

Universidad de Buenos Aires is named the continent’s best university by QS once again. It has risen eight places year-on-year, and now ranks joint 66th globally. It is now joined in the top 100 by Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, the first Mexican university to achieve a top-100 position.

In total, QS ranks 80 Latin American universities across 12 nations. Of these, 52 have fallen down the rankings, while 22 have improved their position year-on-year.

Sowter said this year’s performances “indicate that Latin America’s very top universities are able to reach new heights, particularly as a result of increasing employer confidence in their graduates. However, this is only serving to increase inequities in the region between the very top institutions in the region, and those lower-ranked ones”.

Latin America’s most-represented country is Brazil, with 14 ranked universities. The remaining 66 institutions are divided between Argentina (13), Mexico (12), Colombia (11), Chile (10), Uruguay and Venezuela (4), Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru (3), Cuba (2) and Panama (1).

Brazil’s Universidade de São Paulo has reached a record high in the rankings. It now places 115th after improving its research impact scores.

Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile’s new rank (joint 121st, up six places) is its highest position in the history of QS’s rankings.

Cuba’s best university, Universidad de La Habana, has broken into the top 500 for the first time in its history. It now places 498th.

Interestingly, Latin American universities are performing best in QS’s measure of graduate employability, Employer Reputation. Eight of the world’s top 100 Employer Reputation scores are achieved by Latin American universities.

However, Latin American universities are performing least well in QS’s measure of research impact, Citations per Faculty. Only six of Latin America’s 80 ranked universities have improved their research impact score over the last month, while 68 have seen their scores decline.

Across the continent, teaching capacity – measured using QS’s Faculty-Student Ratio indicator – is dropping. While 24 Latin American institutions have improved their faculty-student ratio score year-on-year, 50 of 80 have seen their teaching capacity decrease.

The top 10 Latin American institutions are: Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina (66=); Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (100th); Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil (115=); Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (121=); Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico (155th); Universidad de Chile (180th); Universidad de los Andes, Colombia (227th); Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Brazil (233); Universidad Nacional de Colombia (259); and Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina (326=).

Middle East

It has been a good year for universities in the Middle East, with consistent improvements. Of the total of 43 Middle Eastern universities placed among the world’s top 1,000, 26 have risen in rank, with only 12 having declined over the past 12 months.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz University (KAU) rose to 143rd, the highest rank ever achieved by one of the region’s universities.

KAU’s rise occurs as a result of QS’s measures of academic standing, graduate employability and research impact. Its most significant rise is in QS’s Citations per Faculty metric, for which it now ranks 212th globally. It also ranks among the global top 200 for QS’s Employer Reputation indicator.

Also rising up the rankings are King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (now 186th), Khalifa University in the United Arab Emirates (joint 211th), Lebanon’s American University of Beirut (joint 220th), Qatar University (now 245th) and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos University (now 375th).

The total of six top-250 universities also represents a record-breaking performance for Middle Eastern higher education, and all but King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (joint 173rd in 2017) have reached all-time highs.

Sowter said: “The improvement of the region’s universities is based on high levels of internationalisation – in particular, the result of efforts to attract talented researchers from across the world to conduct their inquiries in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.”

The top 10 ranked institutions in the Middle East are: King Abdulaziz University, Saudi Arabia (143); King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals, Saudi Arabia (186); Khalifa University, United Arab Emirates (211=); American University of Beirut, Lebanon (220=); Qatar University (245); United Arab Emirates University (284); King Saud University, Saudi Arabia (287=); American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (348=); Sultan Qaboos University, Oman (375=); and Sharif University of Technology, Iran (409=).

North America

Nearly three-quarters of US universities have fallen this year. However, the uppermost echelons of the ranking suggest that America’s top universities retain their world-leading excellence.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is named world-leader for a record ninth consecutive year, while California Institute of Technology’s rise to fourth – displacing the University of Oxford (fifth) means that all of the world’s top four universities are American.

No university in the world can boast a larger research footprint than Harvard, having produced 87,664 academic papers across the five-year period used by QS, with those papers yielding 1,622,145 citations. But Harvard also has the leading score in QS’s Academic Reputation and Employer Reputation indicators.

Stanford University and MIT also achieve perfect scores – 100/100 – for both reputational indicators.

But further down, the results suggest that American higher education, relative to global competitors, is in declining health.

The United States now has two fewer top-50 universities than last year, after Carnegie Mellon University (51st) and the University of California at San Diego (54th) dropped places.

Since 2017, the number of American universities ranked among the global top 100 has fallen from 32 to 27, while the number achieving top-200 ranks has dropped from 48 to 45. Across the published list, the mean year-on-year negative positional swing for America’s ranked universities is 22.7.

Overall performance has deteriorated in all six of the indicators used by QS to compile the rankings, but this deterioration is most conspicuous in the indicators that measure international student numbers and teaching capacity. Of America’s 151 ranked universities, 131 have seen their International Student Ratio scores fall over the last year, relative to universities worldwide.

Notably also, 112 of the US’s 151 ranked universities have received lower scores over the last year in QS’s Faculty-Student Ratio indicator, which measures institutional teaching capacity.

Sowter said: “The consistent drops experienced by American universities in our reputational indicators suggest that the global academic community increasingly believes that educational excellence can be found outside the United States: a trend with implications for international student movements and academic exchange.”

Canada’s leading university, the University of Toronto, ranks joint 25th globally. This represents a year-on-year rise of four places. McGill University has also enjoyed a four-rank rise (now joint 31st), while the University of British Columbia has broken back into the top 50 at 45th.

However, of 26 Canadian universities ranked, 10 improved but 16 declined.

Sowter said Canada’s universities “still exhibit strong standing among employers, and the sector’s performance is holding up more strongly than its competitors for international students – those institutions in the British and American higher education sector”.

“However, as is observed in our American and British datasets, academics across the world are increasingly likely to nominate non-Anglosphere institutions as purveyors of research excellence.”

The top 10 North American universities are all from the US: MIT, US (first); Stanford University, US; (second); Harvard University, US (third), California Institute of Technology, US (fourth), University of Chicago, US (ninth); Princeton University, US (12th); University of Pennsylvania, US (16th); Yale University, US (17th), Cornell University, US (18th); and Columbia University, US (19th).


Australian National University retains its status as the nation’s leading university. However, it has fallen to joint 31st this year: a 12-month drop of two places. It is joined in the top 50 by the University of Sydney (40th, up two places), the University of Melbourne (41st, down three places), the University of New South Wales (44th, down one place) and the University of Queensland (46th, up one place).

Of 36 Australian universities ranked, 23 improved, 12 declined and one remained stable.

However, this apparent success hides some worrying trends in teaching capacity and graduate employability.

In QS’s measure of teaching capacity, Faculty-Student Ratio, 34 of Australia’s 36 ranked universities have received a lower score this year than last year. In QS’s measure of graduate employability, Employer Reputation, 32 out of 36 universities have seen their score deteriorate over the past 12 months.

Most Australian universities have made gains in research impact performance and have continued to excel in internationalisation indicators, according to QS.

Ten Australian universities achieve perfect scores – 100/100 – for QS’s International Faculty Ratio indicator, which measures by proxy an institution’s attractiveness to academic talent across the world. Australian universities are also increasing their international student ratios, relative to global competitors.

Twenty-four of the country’s 36 ranked universities – two thirds – have increased their International Student Ratio score since last year, and three achieve perfect scores in this indicator.

The University of Sydney and Monash University are two of only 14 institutions worldwide to achieve a perfect score on both internationalisation indicators.

Of New Zealand’s eight ranked universities, three have improved and five have dropped in rank. The highest-ranked university, the University of Auckland, rises to 81st globally, up two places.

New Zealand’s universities perform best in QS’s measure of faculty internationalisation levels, in which they achieve a mean score of 98.6/100. The University of Otago and Auckland University of Technology both achieve perfect scores – 100/100 – for QS’s International Faculty Ratio indicator.

However, New Zealand’s universities are declining in QS’s measure of graduate employability, Employer Reputation. All eight of New Zealand’s universities have seen their score for this indicator decline.

Also, three-quarters of New Zealand’s ranked universities have seen their teaching capacity – measured using QS’s Faculty-Student Ratio indicator – decline, relative to global competitors.

The top 10 institutions in Australasia are: Australian National University (31=); the University of Sydney, Australia (40th); the University of Melbourne, Australia (41st); the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Australia (44th); the University of Queensland, Australia (46th); Monash University, Australia (55); the University of Auckland, New Zealand (81st); the University of Western Australia (92nd); the University of Adelaide, Australia (106=); and the University of Technology Sydney, Australia (133=).