What Is the Best University in the World?

November 12, 2021 · Updated on November 15, 2021

What Is the Best University in the World?
Opinion & Analysis
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  • Several publications and organizations rank the world's best universities.
  • Evaluations include both objective data and reputational surveys.
  • Outcomes vary, but one university comes in first more often than not.

A new ranking by a British magazine claims Oxford is the best university in the world. Yet this same publication also recently released the results of a reputational survey suggesting that title belongs to Harvard.

Is there one "best" university in the world? If so, what is it?

THE World University Rankings

The publication in question is THE, or Times Higher Education, which has been ranking universities since 2010. Its World University Rankings reflect data from a reputational survey along with more objective measures such as teaching, research, faculty citations, international enrollment and collaborations, and industry partnerships.

In its 2022 edition, THE ranks Oxford first. Caltech and Harvard (pictured above) tie for second, followed by Stanford at fourth and Cambridge and MIT in a tie for fifth. Last year, the top three were Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard. In 2020, Oxford ranked first, and Harvard finished seventh.

Overall, throughout the ranking's history, Oxford has finished first six times, including every year since 2017. Caltech has topped the list five times, while Harvard has once. Clearly, THE thinks Oxford is the world's best university, especially recently, based on its metrics.

But wait. According to the magazine's new rankings based solely on reputation, Harvard is No. 1. In fact, since the advent of the reputation-only rankings in 2011, Harvard has finished first every time.

To determine reputational quality, THE surveys academics, asking them to rate institutions according to research and teaching excellence. Research counts for twice as much as teaching because, well, it's evidently more important.

For the past several years, MIT has finished second, followed by Oxford, Stanford, and Cambridge in some order.

So when THE crunches the numbers in its complex methodology, Oxford comes out on top. But when it asks academics around the world which university is best, they overwhelmingly say Harvard.

U.S. News & World Report

THE likely got into the rankings business in response to the success of U.S. News & World Report, the magazine that launched a thousand copycats and spawned a cottage industry. Since 1983, the U.S. News rankings have been the most anticipated, most influential, and most controversial college rankings in the country, if not the world.

The magazine is best known for its ranking of undergraduate education, the ever-popular "America's Best Colleges" lists of national and regional universities and liberal arts colleges. It also evaluates graduate and professional schools in a range of disciplines.

U.S. News in 2014 launched its "Best Global Universities" rankings to compare institutions worldwide. Evaluation criteria include global research reputation, using the results from Clarivate's Academic Reputation Survey, along with metrics such as publications and citations, books and conference presentations, and international collaborations.

In the 2022 global edition, U.S. News ranks Harvard first, followed by MIT, Stanford, Berkeley and Oxford. The first global ranking, for 2015, featured the same five in roughly that order, except with Berkeley and Stanford swapping places.

For the past several years, U.S. News has ranked Princeton the top university for undergraduate education, but it considers Harvard the best overall university in the world.

Shanghai Rankings

The University of Oxford ranked No.5 in U.S. News & World Report's 2022 Best Global Universities Rankings

The Shanghai Rankings, formally called the Academic Ranking of World Universities, are based in China. They originated at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and have been published by Shanghai Rankings Consultancy since 2009.

To arrive at its rankings, Shanghai considers factors such as the number of faculty and alumni winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, research output, and publications and citations.

For 2021, the top five include Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, MIT, and Berkeley. Since 2010, Harvard has finished first and Stanford second (except in 2010, when Berkeley did), with these other schools following in some order.

Here's yet another convincing vote for Harvard — and one that doesn't depend on the results of a reputational survey.

Center for World University Rankings

Headquartered in the United Arab Emirates, the Center for World University Rankings (CWUR) has been issuing its findings since 2012. It evaluates faculty and educational quality, alumni employment, publications and citations, and research performance. Like Shanghai, CWUR doesn't rely on reputational surveys.

Its latest 2022 ranking places Harvard first, followed by MIT, Stanford, Cambridge, and Oxford. Dating back to 2012, Harvard has finished first every year, with Stanford most often coming in second.

Another dominating win for Harvard, it appears.

Round University Ranking

Founded in 2013 and based in Moscow, the oddly named Round University Ranking evaluates 1,100 universities across 82 countries. It considers teaching, research, international diversity, and financial sustainability in its methodology and uses a worldwide reputational survey to determine teaching and research quality. Both objective data and subjective opinions thus factor into these rankings.

Harvard once again dominates. In 2021, Harvard is first, followed by Caltech, Stanford, Imperial College London, and Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Last year's top five included Harvard, Caltech, Imperial College London, Stanford, and MIT.

Since 2010 (RUR began in 2013 but its rankings cover 2010 to the present), Harvard has finished first all but three times, relinquishing its crown to Caltech in 2012, 2013, and 2016.

As with THE, Round also publishes the results of its reputational survey of teaching and research, separating a purely reputation-based ranking from an approach that includes more quantifiable data. And just like with THE's reputation results, Round's reputation ranking concludes that Harvard leads the way. Harvard has finished first in every reputational ranking since 2010. For 2021, the remaining top five are MIT, Stanford, Cambridge, and Oxford.

Yet another Round of applause for Harvard.

QS World University Rankings

The QS World University Rankings have existed since 2004. Combining survey research and data analysis, QS looks at academic reputation, faculty-to-student ratio, reputation among employers, citations, and international faculty and student ratios.

In the last four rankings, MIT has finished first. For 2022, Oxford is second, followed by Stanford and Cambridge in a tie for third and Harvard in fifth. In prior years, MIT, Stanford, and Harvard have taken the top three spots.

That's one clear vote for MIT as the world's best.

CEOWORLD Top 500 Global Universities

MIT was No. 1 in the QS World University Rankings

Like U.S. News, CEOWORLD magazine likes ranking things — from city governments to creative careers to universities and business schools around the world.

To rank universities, the magazine considers factors such as perceived global influence, reputation among recruiters and employers, job placement rates, and admissions statistics. It uses a combination of public data and survey results. The survey asks one question, cutting straight to the chase: Which universities are the best in the world?

In 2020, its list of the top 500 global universities featured MIT on top, followed by Stanford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Oxford. The year before, the order was MIT, Stanford, and Harvard.

Harvard finished first in 2017 and 2018.

So it's a split decision between MIT and Harvard, with MIT taking the later rounds.

What Is the World's Best University?

Given all these evaluations and rankings, can we conclude there's one "best" university in the world?

Harvard more often than not finishes first in both reputational surveys and objective evaluations. Other schools — Oxford, Caltech, and MIT — top some rankings, but not as consistently as Harvard. The latter two might have a distinct advantage when scientific prowess factors prominently.

As with all rankings, the notion of "best" is essentially meaningless to each consumer. What is best for one person may not be best for another based on individual preferences. Someone lacking any modicum of quantitative skills likely would shy away from MIT and Caltech, top-rated or not. The best universities don't necessarily have the best programs in every discipline.

What's more, these rankings tend to focus heavily on research productivity, which may have little to no bearing on the typical undergraduate's experience. A small liberal arts college or an honors college at a public university could provide a better education for a student seeking that kind of intimate setting.

But because we're a culture that voraciously consumes rankings of all stripes, we want to know who or what is the best in every conceivable category. In the matter of "world's best university," we don't have a definitive answer, but the institution that can most justifiably lay claim to that title is Harvard.

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