U.S. universities take 8 of top 10 spots in world rankings

Despite that success, a familiar front-runner holds the No. 1 position for the fifth straight year, and China is making big inroads into in impact of global research
By: | September 2, 2020
Sidharth Bhatia/Unsplash

How are universities in the United States faring on the world stage?

Quite well, even amid the tumult caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Times Higher Education released its ratings of more than 1,500 higher education institutions across the globe. Eight of the top 10 schools in its World University Rankings are from the U.S. – a record – but the distinction of best university in the world again went to Oxford University.

The renowned England university took home top honors for the fifth consecutive year. It far outdistanced friendly UK rival Cambridge University, which fell into the sixth position.

No. 2 on the list was Stanford, followed by Harvard (which was No. 1 in teaching), the California Institute of Technology (which was the last to unseat Oxford for top spot in 2016), and MIT. Rounding out the Top 10 were the University of California Berkeley, Yale, Princeton and the University of Chicago.

The survey done by Times Higher Education looked at universities from 93 countries or regions as well as data from “more than 80 million citations across over 13 million research publications.” In addition, the study also featured information from 22,000 world scholars. Universities were judged on teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

Along with the rankings, leaders of the survey noted in an in-depth article that institutions were struggling cope with the pandemic, facing shortfalls in enrollment and huge increases in unexpected budget items. Still, many leaders including those from UC Berkeley and Oxford expressed comfort in being able to not only have improved communication with colleagues outside their countries but also the research to go with it.

There’s stiff competition now

The study’s authors lauded the record number of U.S. institutions that cracked the top 10 but said “U.S. universities outside the Top 200 show signs of decline.” In a survey of 200 college leaders, they noted that China’s representation in the top 100  doubled from three to six in the past year. In 2016, China had only two universities in the top 200.

Just over 50% of the 25 leaders from the U.S. in the survey expressed concern that science and research “will become significantly higher priorities for the government once the pandemic ends.” Chinese leaders were at 78% while the UK was at 71%. Less than 50% say budgets will rise from those sources, meaning funding research could take a big hit.

“The THE World University Rankings 2021 are a real wake-up call for the U.S. higher education system, which has long dominated the global knowledge economy alongside the UK,” said Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at Times Higher Education. “It continues a trend over the past five years that has seen the rapid rise of China breaking into the top 100 at the expense of western institutions. The spectre of Covid-19 is yet to be seen, but it is clear from our leaders survey that without long-term commitments to funding, and an ability to reduce reliance on international student fees, China is in pole position to benefit at the expense of the United States on the global higher education stage.”

Of the high achievers, seven other renowned stateside institutions made it into the Top 25 including: Johns Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, Columbia, Cornell, the University of Michigan and Northwestern University.

Both the University of Wisconsin (49) and Washington University in St. Louis (50) were not in the Top 50 last year but made it in this time. Mainstays New York University (26), Carnegie Mellon (28), the University of Washington (29), the University of California San Diego (33), Georgia Tech (38) and the University of Texas (44) all reached the top 50, as well.

Those institutions from the U.S. that made it into the Top 100:

53: University of Southern California

54: Boston University

56: University of North Carolina

61: Brown University

64: University of California, Davis

68: University of California, Santa Barbara

80: Ohio State University

85 (tie): Emory and University of Minnesota

90: University of Maryland

94: Purdue University

98: University of California, Irvine

Some of the biggest movers up the charts were those from outside the U.S. At No. 18, China’s Tsinghua University became the first Asian institution to make it into the Top 20 on the survey, which has been done in its current form since 2011. India boasted the most ranked universities with 63, including 14 first-time recipients.


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com