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University Rankings for Postgraduate Study – 2021

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.

Introduction – university rankings for Masters degrees?

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.

Global rankings – 'the big three'

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 for postgraduate study

We've reproduced the top results from each of the three main rankings, below:

Top Ranked Universities in 2021
University Country THE 2021 QS 2021 ARWU 2020
University of Oxford UK 1 5 9
Stanford University USA 2 2 2
Harvard University USA 3 3 1
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
Yale University USA 8 17 11
Princeton University USA 9 12 6
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
ETH Zurich Switzerland 14 6 29
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) USA 15 36 13
University College London UK 16 10 16
Columbia University USA 17 19 7
University of Toronto Canada 18 =25 23
Cornell University USA 19 18 12
Duke University USA =20 42 27
Tsinghua University China =20 15 29
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor USA 22 21 22
Peking University China 23 23 49
Northwestern University USA 24 29 30
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
LMU Munich Germany 32 63 51
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
Karolinska Institute Sweden =36 - 45
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
McGill University Canada 40 =31 78
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
KU Leuven Belgium 45 84 97
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
Boston University USA -54 =110 90
Kyoto University Japan =54 38 34
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
Brown University USA 61 60 101-150
University of Queensland Australia =62 46 54
Wageningen University & Research Netherlands =62 =115 151-200
University of California, Davis USA =64 112 91
Monash University Australia =64 55 85
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
McMaster University Canada 69 144 98
Fudan University China =70 34 100
Leiden University Netherlands =70 =128 80

The information in this table is based on the 2021 university rankings published by Times Higher Education, QS and the Academic Ranking of World Universities. You can view rankings and additional information on their websites.

What do rankings measure?

Rankings use their own metrics and weightings, but they tend to focus on the same broad criteria.

Research performance

  • What is it? – All rankings measure universities' research output by looking at their number of publications, as well as citations (how often research is referenced by other scholars), academic prizes, external funding and surveys of reputation.
  • Why does it matter? – Masters degrees focus on advanced material at the cutting edge of scholarship and this is heavily informed by new research – a leading research university may be able to offer more innovative postgraduate courses (as well as great dissertation options).
  • Bear in mind – Research is expensive and smaller or newer universities may not produce as much of it. But that doesn't mean the research they do produce is bad. Don't overlook innovative Masters courses at more specialised providers.

Teaching quality

  • What is it? – It's hard to measure teaching directly, so rankings use proxies such as staff-student ratio, the number of higher degrees awarded or alumni achievements.
  • Why does it matter? – High quality teaching benefits all students and some metrics also specifically reflect the scope of a university's postgraduate provision.
  • Bear in mind – Some metrics won't distinguish between undergraduates and postgraduates. Staff-student ratio, for example, may not be as important to Masters degrees with smaller class sizes.

Industry relationships

  • What is it? – Some rankings measure a university's links with employers and other commercial organisations.
  • Why does it matter? – External partnerships and investment can help a university deliver innovative degree programmes, particularly at postgraduate level. Students may also benefit more generally from internship and placement opportunities. Unsurprisingly, some of these metrics are particularly important for MBA students.
  • Bear in mind – Collaborations and investment won't be evenly spread across all of a university's degree programmes.

Internationalisation

  • What is it? – Some rankings measure universities' international partnerships and recruitment.
  • Why does it matter? – A strong international profile can benefit postgraduate programmes by offering different perspectives, opportunities and experiences. And it goes without saying that a more international university can be ideal for postgraduate study abroad.
  • Bear in mind – These metrics vary – and measure very different things. Universities in some countries may also find it harder to internationalise in 'rankable' ways, particularly if linguistic or geographical barriers are in place.

Other ranking types

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 World University Rankings

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).

Using the Times Higher Education rankings for postgraduate study

Here, in our opinion are some of the particular strengths of the THE rankings system for postgraduate students:

  • Strong academic focus – Research citations carry a lot of weight in THE rankings, accounting for almost a third of a university’s score. This offers a good indicator of how successful a university is at producing leading research in its field – research that can support and inform cutting-edge Masters courses.
  • Diverse teaching metrics – The Times Higher Education includes postgraduate-specific teaching metrics, measuring the ratio of PhD students to undergraduates and the number of PhDs a university awards. A strong postgraduate research culture feeds down into taught Masters degrees, as well as PGCert and PGDip courses.
  • Things to bear in mind

    It’s important to understand what the Times Higher Education methodology excludes as well as what it includes.

    • No employer-specific metrics – Employer metrics aren’t included in the Times Higher Education rankings. This isn’t necessarily a big issue, but it’s worth remembering that the focus of this methodology is mainly academic.
    • May not include all specialist institutions – The Times Higher Education rankings only include universities if they award undergraduate degrees and produce a certain number of publications each year. This can exclude some specialised institutions that may offer great Masters degrees.

The QS World University Rankings

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.

Using the QS World University Rankings for postgraduate study

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:

  • Student-centric metrics – QS rankings are designed to meet the information needs of prospective students (rather than provide a performance benchmark for universities and other parts of the higher education industry). More weight is given to metrics such as staff/student-ratio, international recruitment and as employer opinion (which isn't in the other two rankings).
  • Qualitative and quantitative balance – The main QS World University Rankings are roughly balanced 50/50 between qualitative data (from subjective surveys) and ‘hard’ statistics.

Things to bear in mind

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.

  • Simpler teaching metrics – the main QS rankings rely on staff-student-ratio as a core teaching quality metric. This is may not be as nuanced as the Times Higher Education rankings, which factor in peer opinion of teaching quality and the presence of postgraduate researchers.
  • Less weight given to research – the flipside of QS’s focus on student metrics is a corresponding drop in the weight of more traditional academic indicators such as research citations. This is a double-edged sword: a successful academic department may be more likely to develop and support better advanced degrees such as Masters programs.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai Ranking)

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’.

Using the ARWU rankings for postgraduate study

Here, in our opinion, are some of the highlights of the ARWU rankings, from the point of view of a prospective postgraduate:

  • Reflects the presence of elite academics – if you want to study a Masters with the absolute best academic teachers and researchers in your field, the ARWU can help you find out where they might be.
  • Reflects the future academic success of graduates – alumni prizes may seem like a strange metric but no other ranking factors in the achievements of a university’s graduates in this way.

Things to bear in mind

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.

  • Distinguishing between individuals and institutions – The ARWU methodology measures the success of individual university faculty and alumni. Whilst the presence of elite individuals probably reflects (or creates) institutional quality, the ARWU doesn’t directly assess this in its own right.
  • Lack of teaching metrics The ARWU system measures ‘quality of education’ entirely through the academic success of a university’s alumni. This can identify producers of excellent graduates, but it only reflects their very highest achievements and only in an academic (rather than professional) context.

Last updated - 11/09/2020

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