Oxford has been named the world’s best university for the fifth consecutive year. But the latest rankings show that it’s China's universities that are the rising stars of global higher education.

Tsinghua University enters the coveted top 20 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings this year, a distinction previously only bestowed on European and US institutions.

Six of the world’s top 100 global universities are from China – double the number in the previous year – while all but one of the country’s top 20 institutions have either bettered or maintained their 2020 rankings.

The top ten best universities in the world, according to Times Higher Education.

The top ten best universities in the world, according to Times Higher Education.
Image: Times Higher Education.

The United States dominates the top of the list – eight of the top 10 universities are in the US with Stanford, Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley all improving their rankings. California Institute of Technology and Princeton both slipped down the table.

The tables are based on performance indicators in five areas: teaching; research; academic citations; international outlook; and income. The UK’s Cambridge University registered its lowest ranking since 2014, dropping three places from 3rd to 6th in the table.

Cambridge’s overall score in the 2021 rankings was 94.0, down from an overall 94.4 in the 2020 survey and 94.8 the previous year. By contrast, the University of California, Berkeley, improved its ranking from 13th to 7th by boosting its score from 88.3 to 92.2 in one year.

Uncertain outlook

This year’s World University Rankings include 1,500 institutions from 93 countries and regions. Rankings editor Ellie Bothwell says despite the good news for some universities, the future for the sector looks bleak thanks to COVID-19.

Despite the high profile of some universities developing vaccines, treatments and tracking the progress of the pandemic, a recent study by Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested as many as 13 UK universities might have to close.

It said university income in the UK could be halved and less prestigious institutions were particularly vulnerable because they entered the pandemic with weakened finances.

Bothwell says some US universities have already permanently closed or merged with other institutions and as many as 21,000 full-time university staff in Australia risk losing their jobs before the end of the year.

Many students around the world are using digital platforms to study remotely. As far back as 2014, the World Economic Forum urged universities to embrace technologies like online courses, adding: “Universities which will be able to turn their challenges into opportunities will thrive”.