The World's Best Universities for 2021
This story was updated on June 12, 2020.
With the school year coming to a close, many students across the globe will already be getting prepared for their last year of schooling—and setting their sights on the universities they will be applying for. Those wanting to apply to the best schools out there will no doubt look to the newly released list produced by QS World University Rankings, rating the best universities in the world for 2021.
Topping the Quacquarelli Symonds list is Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with Stanford University and Harvard University coming in second and third. Other institutions featured in the top 10 include the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London, along with California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
Though just missing out on a top 10 position, the National University of Singapore (NUS) holds the 11th position—the highest-ranking Asian university on the list, while Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU) stands at 13th place.
The indicators used in the ranking system include academic reputation, employer reputation, student to faculty ratio, international student and faculty ratios and citations per faculty to give each school its overall score.
1/10 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
A private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT is organised into five schools: Science, Engineering, Architecture and Planning, Management, and Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; and two colleges: Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology and Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. Best known for its programs in engineering and the sciences, MIT is also notable for economics, political science, urban studies, linguistics and philosophy. College life at MIT is vibrant, with 33 varsity sports, more than 60 arts groups, and 12 museums and galleries, including the MIT Museum, on campus.
The land-grant, sea-grant, and space-grant university also boasts a wealth of facilities such as a nuclear research reactor, a pressurised wind tunnel for aerodynamic research, a towing tank for testing ship and ocean structure designs, an artificial intelligence laboratory, and a space research centre. The institute is known for producing many astronauts—38, including Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. MIT reported in 2019 that there are currently three more alumni undergoing training at Nasa, which could bring the tally to 41. Dr Tony Tan, the 7th president of Singapore, had also graduated from MIT with a Master of Science in operations research.
2/10 Stanford University
Located in Stanford, California, Stanford University stands in the heart of Silicon Valley, which the private research university is largely credited for. Fred Terman, who was dean of the university’s School of Engineering from 1944 to 1958, was known to have nurtured companies like Hewlett-Packard, Eastman Kodak, and Lockheed Corporation (now Lockheed Martin Corporation). The institute is also particularly noted for it entrepreneurship and success in attracting fundings for start-ups—it has earned the moniker of “Billionaire Factory”, boasting alumni of 74 known billionaires including Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
Stanford University is organised into seven academic schools: Humanities and Sciences, Engineering, and Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, which offer both graduate and undergraduate programs; and Law, Medicine, Education and Business which only offer graduate programs. It is home to more than 120 research institutes including The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. Stanford University also offers 36 varsity sports, and students and alumni of the institute have won 270 Olympic medals as of 2017.
3/10 Harvard University
Founded in 1636, Harvard University is the oldest higher education institution in the United States and is especially known for its stellar alumni, which reportedly boasts 188 living billionaires (as of 2018) and eight presidents of the United States (US)—John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, John F. Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Hayes and Obama had graduated from Harvard Law School, which is amongst the most widely recognised law schools in the world. Chief justice of Singapore, Sundaresh Menon, was a graduate of Harvard’s law programme. Harvard is also known for its schools of Medicine and Business.
An Ivy League school, Harvard features over 400 official student societies, offering plenty of extracurricular, co-curricular and athletic opportunities for students. Students can also access a wealth of resources and facilities, such as the Harvard Library—which boasts the world’s largest academic library system—Harvard Stadium and Harvard Art Museums.
(Related: 5 Youngest Billionaires in Asia, According to Forbes' 2020 Richest List)
4/10 California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
Founded as a preparatory and vocational school, Caltech, which stands in Pasadena, California, is one of the few institutes of technology solely dedicated to pure and applied sciences. The school’s six academic divisions consist of Biology and Biological Engineering, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Engineering and Applied Science, Geological and Planetary Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy.
Regarded as one of the world’s major research centres, Caltech’s mission is “to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education.” The institute features many facilities to support its studies, such as the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Caltech Seismological Laboratory, and the International Observatory Network. Despite its focus on the sciences, students have ample opportunities to participate in athletic as well as arts and culture activities—from baseball and water polo to orchestra and choir.
5/10 University of Oxford
The University of Oxford in Oxford, England has a storied history that traces all the way to 1096, earning it the title of the world’s second-oldest university in continuous operation. A collegiate university, Oxford comprises 39 colleges and six permanent private halls. With its longstanding history. the university maintains a number of museums and galleries, including the Ashmolean Museum—the oldest museum in the United Kingdom (UK)—which holds significant works by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Picasso. Its library is also the largest university system in the UK.
QS Top Universities ranked Oxford at number one for Arts and Humanities in 2020. It has produced many politicians, such as British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May and Boris Johnson; and international leaders such as Harald V of Norway, former US president Bill Clinton, and Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the Dragon King of Bhutan. The institute also boasts a number of notable alumni in the arts, including writers Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien and Oscar Wilde. Actors Hugh Grant, Felicity Jones, Gemma Chan and Rowan Atkinson are also Oxford graduates.
6/10 ETH Zurich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
A public research university in Zurich, Switzerland, ETH Zurich was founded by the Swiss Federal Government in 1854 with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Its most famous alumnus is Albert Einstein. QS Top Universities ranked the school at 4th in the world for Engineering and Technology and 6th for Natural Sciences in 2020. It features 16 departments in subjects from engineering and architecture to chemistry and physics.
Education at ETH Zurich builds on strong mathematical foundations, focusing on theory and paired with practical applications. Undergraduate programmes are mainly taught in German, while most master's programs and doctoral studies are taught in English. The institution is also known to have twice as many lectures as other Swiss schools, but campus life is vibrant with regular exhibitions, plays, concerts, conferences as well as sports events.
(Related: Meet the 26 Singaporeans on Forbes’ 2020 Billionaires List)
7/10 University of Cambridge
The fourth-oldest surviving university and the second-oldest English-speaking university, the University of Cambridge is a collegiate public research university that includes 31 semi-autonomous constituent colleges and more than 100 academic departments. The institution in Cambridge, England is organised into six schools: Arts and Humanities, Biological Sciences, Clinical Medicine, Humanities and Social Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Technology. According to QS Top Universities’ ranking in 2020, Cambridge holds the third position for Arts and Humanities, Engineering and Technology, as well as Life Sciences and Medicine across the globe.
Like Oxford, Cambridge features a wealth of educational and cultural resources, with a total of 114 libraries—Corpus Christi College's Parker Library holds one of the greatest collections of medieval manuscripts in the world—eight arts, cultural and scientific museums, and a botanical garden. The university has produced distinguished alumni that are amongst Singapore’s elite, such as the late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, senior minister and coordinating minister for social policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and former attorney-general of Singapore V. K. Rajah.
8/10 Imperial College London
As its name suggests, Imperial College London was established by the royal charter in 1907 and underwent various merging of schools between the 19th and 20th century. The college is based in South Kensington, London, where Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole aspired to create an area for science and the arts in the 19th century. It is located near three major museums: the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum; and two royal parks: Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.
The school is organised into four faculties: Engineering, Natural Sciences, Medicine, and Business; with two academic centres for arts and humanities, social sciences, and other subjects outside of technology and the sciences. Education at Imperial is focused on research and practical applications in addressing global challenges, with a high level of interdisciplinary collaborations. Notable alumni from Singapore include senior minister and coordinating minister for national security Teo Chee Hean, former Singapore Airlines CEO Chew Choon Seng, and co-founder and managing partner of Credence Partners Koh Boon Hwee.
9/10 University of Chicago
Based in Chicago, the United States, the University of Chicago consists of the College, which grants Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees in 51 academic majors and 33 minors, and graduate schools and committees in Biological Sciences, Humanities, Physical Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Institute for Molecular Engineering. The institution is also well known for its seven professional schools: the Pritzker School of Medicine, the Booth School of Business, the University of Chicago Law School, the University of Chicago Divinity School, the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy Studies, and the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.
The university offers a myriad of more than 400 clubs and societies across sports, arts, culture, religion, academic and political—the most notable ones being the University of Chicago bowling team, its Model United Nations team, film society Doc Films, theatre troupe Off-Off campus and radio station WHPK.
10/10 UCL (University College London)
Established in 1826, UCL is the first university institution in London, and the first to be secular, admitting students regardless of religion. It also claims to be the first to admit women in England, which has been contested by the University of Bristol. The school has undergone several mergers from the 19th century to what it is today. UCL is organised into 11 constituent faculties: Arts and Humanities, Brain Sciences, Built Environment (The Bartlett), Engineering Sciences, Laws, Life Sciences, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Medical Sciences, Population Health Sciences, Social and Historical Sciences and the Institute of Education.
The college’s teaching methodology places priority on cross-disciplinary research, focusing on Global Health, Sustainable Cities, Intercultural Interaction and Human Wellbeing, which it considers as its four Grand Challenges. UCL offers over 150 clubs and societies and over 50 sports clubs, including UCL Snowsports, Pi Media, and UCL Union Debating Society. It is also responsible for a number of museums and collections, such as the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL Art Museum, and Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy.