UK and Swiss universities lead for Europe in the top 20

The United Kingdom’s top two universities – the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge – move back towards the summit of the QS World University Rankings, placing second and third respectively.

For the University of Oxford, which has recorded a three-place rise over the last year, it is the highest position it has achieved since 2006 – and QS has never ranked it higher.

The University of Cambridge, which topped the QS World University Rankings in 2010 and 2011, returns to joint third – shared with Stanford University – and, in so doing, attains its best rank since 2016.

Data from QS’s research partners at Elsevier Scopus shows that:

• Currently, approximately 20% of the world’s research is done as a result of global collaboration. For the UK, however, this figure is much higher, with 53% of its research involving international engagement.

• Also, 40% of the UK’s research papers are published in the top 10% of academic journals by impact – four times the global average (10%).

• In total, the UK is home to five of the world’s top 20 universities, all of which have improved their rank over the last year: Imperial College London has risen from eighth to seventh, University College London has risen from 10th to joint eighth (shared with Switzerland’s ETH Zurich), and the University of Edinburgh rises from 20th to 16th.

Of the 90 UK universities ranked, 28 have improved their position over the past year but 36 have declined in rank, while 22 remain stable within their position or band.

Vaccination success story

Ben Sowter, director of research at QS, said: “Perhaps no British research success story has captured the public imagination to the extent that the University of Oxford’s role in developing the ChAdOx1 vaccine has – and quite rightly.”

However, he said Oxford’s record-equalling jump in this year’s rankings is the result of work done across its entire faculty body: in the UK “only UCL has produced a higher number of academic research papers over the past five years, and no British university’s research has enjoyed a higher impact, with almost 1.5 million citations yielded on Oxford’s papers”.

He said that there is, however, a broader lesson to be learned from Oxbridge’s success this year, which is the enduring value of international collaboration.

“It is no accident that the most internationally collaborative universities are also those enjoying success in our rankings, or that the UK’s rate of research improvement outstrips the global mean. As British higher education navigates its post-Brexit future, this lesson should not be ignored.”

ETH Zurich tops continental Europe

This year’s ranking names ETH Zurich as continental Europe’s best university for a 14th consecutive year. ETH Zurich is also among the world’s top 10 universities for an eighth year in a row.

Europe’s top 10 universities are: University of Oxford, UK (second); University of Cambridge, UK (joint third); Imperial College London, UK (seventh); ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), Switzerland and UCL (University College London), UK (joint eighth); Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland (joint 14th); University of Edinburgh, UK (16th); University of Manchester, UK (joint 27th); King’s College London, UK (35th); Université PSL (Paris Sciences & Lettres), France (44th).

ETH Zurich’s enduring status as one of the world’s finest higher education institutions is driven by its world-class contributions to global research. It achieves a score of 99.8/100 in QS’s measure of faculty research impact, Citations per Faculty – and has slightly improved its research performance over the last year, relative to global competitors.

ETH Zurich continues to outperform its competitors, relative to the size of its faculty body. Between 2015 and 2019, 65 universities produced a higher number of academic research papers than ETH Zurich. However, only two of those – Belgium’s Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and the University of Science and Technology China – did so with fewer faculty members.

Two of France’s newest universities reach record highs, demonstrating their outstanding ability to compete on the global stage. Université PSL, which formally received its university status in 2019, rises eight places to rank 44th. Its also-nascent peer, Sorbonne University, established by merger in 2018, has risen 11 places year-on-year, and now ranks 72nd globally.

Institut Polytechnique de Paris enters the top 50, rising from 61st to joint 49th, and Université Paris-Saclay places joint 86th.

However, the French sector is prevented from systemic improvements by enduringly low teaching capacity scores, according to QS.

Germany’s top university, Technische Universität München, retains its place among the global top 50 for a second consecutive year. But overall, the results are mixed for the German higher education sector.

Sowter said that “while the restructuring of France’s institutions sought to further key strategic goals beyond simply improving ranking performance, this year’s edition of the QS World University Rankings suggests that this process has helped make newly-reconfigured universities more competitive on the global stage – both PSL and Sorbonne University have recorded significant improvements in research impact scores over the last year”.

However, he said it also remains clear that French higher education will not make further systemic improvements until it expands teaching provision. “While excellent in many areas, French universities continue to perform poorly in our measure of teaching capacity, and it is the sector’s major area of weakness.”

German universities by contrast are characterised by relatively high levels of teaching capacity: eight of the world’s top 200 scores for our Faculty:Student Ratio indicator are achieved by German institutions.

“As students express increasing concern about the extent to which they will enjoy a personalised, nurturing teaching experience, the emphasis that Germany has placed on low student:faculty ratios is a major inducement for talented individuals to study in the country,” Sowter said.

With 46 universities ranked across the table, only five countries can boast a higher number of world-class universities than Germany. However, of those 46, while 17 have improved their rank over the past year, 23 have declined in rank.

Russian progress in the QS rankings has slowed over the past year, with six of Russia’s seven highest-ranked universities falling, and more universities trending downwards (13) than upwards (10).

In total, QS rank 401 universities from 36 continental European nations, ensuring that Europe remains the most-represented region in the rankings. Of these 401 universities:

• 111 have improved their position over the last year.
• 103 remain neutral within their rank or band.
• 143 have declined in rank.
• 44 are new participants in the ranking exercise.