US dominates and Harvard tops Shanghai ranking for 19th year

American and British universities continued to dominate the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) 2021, accounting for just over a quarter of the top 1,000 institutions, with no major overall changes or upsets from previous editions. Harvard University took the top spot yet again – as indeed it has for the past 19 years.

Harvard is followed in the top five by Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of California, Berkeley.

As the world’s first major global university ranking, launched in 2003 and now carried out by the independent ShanghaiRanking Consultancy, the ARWU is known for its stability, with little change in the placing of universities year by year.

The United States has an impressive 16 universities in the top 20. Also in there are Princeton (6), Columbia (8), California Institute of Technology (9), Chicago (10), Yale (11), Cornell (12), University of California, Los Angeles (14), Pennsylvania (15), Johns Hopkins (16), University of California, San Diego (18), Washington (19), and University of California, San Francisco (20).

The United Kingdom has three in the top 20 – Cambridge in third place, the University of Oxford (7) and University College London (17). France’s Paris-Saclay University came in at 13 – up from 14 in 2020, for its performance in mathematics.

Proclaimed in its press release as being “recognised as the precursor of global university rankings and the most trustworthy one”, the ARWU, often known as the Shanghai ranking, scrutinised 2,000 universities worldwide, with the 1,000 best published.

Country performance

US domination of the overall rankings, as well as the top slots, saw 40 American institutions among the top 100; 129 among the top 500; and 200 among the top 1,000 – one in five of all of the 1,000 world-leading universities.

Eight British universities were in the top 100 – aside from the three in the top 20 there are Imperial College London (25), the University of Manchester (35) and the University of Edinburgh (38). There were 38 in the top 500 and 65 in the top 1,000.

Germany has four universities in the top 100: the University of Munich (48), Technical University of Munich (52), Heidelberg University (57) and University of Bonn (84).

Switzerland’s ETH Zurich dropped one place, to 21 this year, while Canada’s University of Toronto rose by one place, to 22. Japan’s University of Tokyo was the only Asian university in the top 30, rising two places to 24.

France has three universities in the top 50, with Paris-Saclay rising one position to 13, the Sorbonne rising four places to 35, and Paris Sciences et Lettres University dropping two places to 38. Overall, France has 17 institutions in the top 500 and 30 in the top 1,000.

China performed well in the rankings, with Tsinghua University rising by a place to 28, Peking University rising four places to 45, and Zheijang University climbing by six places to 52. China has seven universities in the top 100, 84 in the top 500 and 180 universities in the top 1,000 – it is catching up to the US in this regard.

Two European universities moved up into the top 50, the University of Munich at 48 and Utrecht University in the Netherlands has risen two places to 50.

Three universities entered the top 100 list, including Sun Yat-sen University (89) in China, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (90) and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (94).


The ARWU ranking sees little change year on year because its methodology stays the same. Research and the quality of academics are highly valued in the ARWU methodology, together accounting for 80% of a university’s overall score.

The ‘research output’ category is worth 40%, including 20% based on an institution’s number of papers published in leading academic journals Nature and Science, plus 20% for the number of papers listed in the Science Citation Index Expanded or Social Sciences Citation Index.

The ‘quality of faculty’ category is also worth 40%, with 20% scored on the number of staff at a university winning Nobel Prizes and Field Medals and 20% for highly cited researchers. The remaining one-fifth of the score covers two categories: 10% for alumni who have won a Nobel Prize or Field Medal; and 10% for the per capita performance of a university.

Other big rankings

Unlike the Shanghai ranking, the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings 2022, published in June, is 40% determined by an institution’s reputation, as well as by faculty-to-student ratios, including international staff and students.

Harvard University dropped out of the top three for the first time, to fifth position, while overall, 91 US universities lost ground to China. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology topped the latest QS rankings – but is ranked fourth in the Shanghai ranking – while Oxford came in second and Cambridge held joint third place with Stanford.

In the QS ranking Asia’s top two universities, from Singapore, were ranked 11 and 12 – National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) respectively. In the Shanghai ranking, the NUS ranked 75 and NTU at 81.

For its part the 2021 Times Higher Education World University Rankings places Oxford first and Stanford second followed by Harvard, California Institute of Technology and MIT. Then Cambridge (6), Berkeley (7), Yale (8), Princeton (9) and Chicago (10).

The ranking, published in September 2020 and due out again soon, said Chinese universities had made “several historic gains”, with the country closing in on and in some areas overtaking the US in terms of research.

“China is home to the first Asian university in the top 20 of the ranking since the current methodology was introduced in 2011, after Tsinghua University climbed three places to joint 20th this year. The country has also doubled its number of top 100 representatives, from three to six, in the past year, while all bar one of its top 20 institutions in last year’s ranking have improved or maintained their performance.”