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If you’re considering a university for postgraduate study, you’ll probably be tempted to see where it sits in at least one academic ranking.
Unfortunately, none of these global tables provides a specific Masters degree ranking. But that doesn't mean they aren't useful for prospective Masters students – quite the opposite, in fact.
This annually updated guide explains how the three main global rankings work and looks at ways you can use them when considering a postgraduate degree.
Alternatively, you can jump straight to a table giving the top universities for 2021.
Sadly, there are some things no ranking reveals: how far you’ll have to walk to lectures, whether the department photocopier will run out of paper the week before your dissertation and how much a pint costs in the student bar.
But there's plenty you can learn from a careful look at university league tables: how well an institution performs in key teaching metrics, how respected it is internationally and what kind of reputation you’ll be associated with as one of its postgraduates.
Some rankings also use metrics that are specific to Masters (and PhD) students: including the amount of investment a university makes into research, how much focus it places on postgraduate education and the number of advanced degrees it awards.
There are three widely recognised and respected rankings of global universities: the QS World University Rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
|Top Ranked Universities in 2021|
|University||Country||THE 2021||QS 2021||ARWU 2020|
|University of Oxford||UK||1||5||9|
|California Institute of Technology||USA||4||4||8|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)||USA||5||1||4|
|University of Cambridge||UK||6||7||3|
|University of California, Berkeley||USA||7||30||5|
|University of Chicago||USA||10||9||10|
|Imperial College London||UK||11||8||25|
|Johns Hopkins University||USA||12||=25||15|
|University of Pennsylvania||USA||13||16||19|
|University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)||USA||15||36||13|
|University College London||UK||16||10||16|
|University of Toronto||Canada||18||=25||23|
|University of Michigan – Ann Arbor||USA||22||21||22|
|National University of Singapore||Singapore||25||11||80|
|New York University||USA||26||35||27|
|London School of Economics (LSE)||UK||27||49||151-200|
|Carnegie Mellon University||USA||28||51||95|
|University of Washington||USA||29||=72||16|
|University of Edinburgh||UK||30||20||42|
|University of Melbourne||Australia||31||41||35|
|University of California, San Diego||USA||33||54||18|
|University of British Columbia||Canada||34||45||38|
|King's College London||UK||35||=31||47|
|University of Tokyo||Japan||=36||24||26|
|Georgia Institute of Technology||USA||38||80||101-150|
|University of Hong Kong||Hong Kong||39||22||151-200|
|Technical University of Munich||Germany||41||50||54|
|University of Heidelberg||Germany||42||64||57|
|École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne||Switzerland||43||14||83|
|University of Texas at Austin||USA||44||71||41|
|Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL)||France||46||52||36|
|Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU)||Singapore||47||13||91|
|University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign||USA||48||82||45|
|University of Wisconsin-Madison||USA||49||65||32|
|Washington University in St Louis||USA||50||105||23|
|University of Manchester||UK||=51||=27||36|
|University of Sydney||Australia||=51||40||74|
|University of Southern California||USA||53||=121||61|
|Chinese University of Hong Kong||Hong Kong||=56||43||101-150|
|Hong Kong University of Science and Technology||Hong Kong||=56||=27||301-400|
|University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill||USA||=56||95||30|
|Australian National University||Australia||59||=31||67|
|Seoul National University||Korea||60||37||101-150|
|University of Queensland||Australia||=62||46||54|
|Wageningen University & Research||Netherlands||=62||=115||151-200|
|University of California, Davis||USA||=64||112||91|
|University of Amsterdam||Netherlands||66||=61||101-150|
|University of New South Wales||Australia||67||44||74|
|University of California, Santa Barbara||USA||68||=152||49|
Rankings use their own metrics and weightings, but they tend to focus on the same broad criteria.
Global rankings can give you a quick 'snapshot' of a university's performance but, as we've seen, these snapshots can sometimes be too simple and sometimes it's worth looking at alternatives:
Regional rankings are good at identifying leading local universities in emerging higher education areas. These might still offer unique and exciting postgraduate study opportunities, even if they aren't yet as well-known (and well ranked) as other global universities.
Rankings of newer universities are another great way to spot younger, more innovative, universities, some of which specialise in specific postgraduate subjects.
Subject rankings modify data from the main rankings to find the best university's for particular academic disciplines. They're very useful for prospective Masters students. You can use them to measure a university’s expertise in the areas that matter most for your postgraduate course.
A few other types of rankings are also being pioneered by specific publishers. Times Higher Education publishes a World Reputation Ranking (based on subjective surveys of academics) whilst QS offers a ranking of the Best Student Cities and a ranking of Graduate Employability.
The Times Higher Education magazine is a UK magazine that regularly publishes new university rankings.
Its flagship global ranking is the only one of the 'big three' to include postgraduate-specific metrics (the number and ratio of doctoral degrees awarded by a university accounts for 8.25% of its score).
Here, in our opinion are some of the particular strengths of the THE rankings system for postgraduate students:
It’s important to understand what the Times Higher Education methodology excludes as well as what it includes.
Produced by the higher education publisher, Quacquarelli Symonds, the QS World University Rankings is one of the most student-centric tables, with metrics taking account of universities’ international recruitment, exchange programmes and employer opinion.
Here, in our opinion are some of the highlights and strengths of the QS rankings portfolio, from the point of view of someone comparing their postgraduate study options:
All rankings publishers have to make choices about what to focus on, what to prioritise and what to give less weight to. QS is no different.
The Academic Ranking of World Universities (or ARWU) is the oldest of the three main global university systems. It’s also the most distinctive.
Originally, the ARWU was produced in-house by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University, but the body responsible for the tables has since become an independent organisation (the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy). The tables are still sometimes referred to as the ‘Shanghai Rankings’.
Here, in our opinion, are some of the highlights of the ARWU rankings, from the point of view of a prospective postgraduate:
Unsurprisingly, the ARWU’s emphasis on top-quality publications, citations and academic prizes also has its limitations for students interested in other aspects of a university’s performance.
Last updated - 11/09/2020