best universities in the world
People walk past restaurants along a street in Beijing on April 6, 2022. Source: Jade Gao/AFP

If you think the best universities in the world are only based in the West, think again. For several years running, Asian universities have been rising in the QS World University Rankings. In the latest edition, China is now home to two of the world’s top 15 unis for the first time ever: Peking University (12th) and Tsinghua University (14th).

National University of Singapore is 11th globally and first in Asia. In the Arab Region. its top uni – King Abdulaziz University placed at 106th, a record high.

All top nine institutions in India rose. Overall, Indian unis recorded more improvements than falls. Unis in Southeast Asian nations like Malaysia and Indonesia rose too, as did South Korea. Japan and Thailand, however, regressed.

The QS World University Rankings is one of the most used and respected global indicator of how good a university is. T0 rank the best universities in the world, it considered 1,418 institutions across 100 locations. How well a uni does on this ranking depends on the expert opinions of 151,000 academic faculty and 99,000 employers, as well as the 16.4 million academic papers and 117.8 million citations received by those papers.

QS World University Rankings 2023: Top 20
2023 2022
1 1 MIT US
2 3= University of Cambridge UK
3 3= Stanford University US
4 2 University of Oxford UK
5 5 Harvard University US
6= 6 Caltech US
6= 7 Imperial College London UK
8 8= UCL UK
9 8= ETH Zurich Switzerland
10 10 University of Chicago US
11 11 National University of Singapore Singapore
12 18 Peking University China
13 13 University of Pennsylvania US
14 17 Tsinghua University China
15 16 The University of Edinburgh UK
16= 14= EPFL Switzerland
16= 20 Princeton University US
18 14= Yale University US
19 12 Nanyang Technological University Singapore
20 21 Cornell University US

More than half of US  and UK universities in the rankings fell. Only 10 UK unis improved, despite having four UK unis in the top 10. Twenty out of 31 Canadian universities declined. Over in Australia, most unis stagnated, although it retains five in the top 50.

The best universities in the world, according to who?

A uni’s performance in rankings, however, is not directly linked to how good it is for you. They give you a fantastic starting point of what teaching is like, how many students there are, how employable grads are, and how much research is produced, but rankings are not a 100% accurate representation of what it’s really like to study there.

Using rankings to determine which are the “best universities in the world” means we are using a tool that is limited to metrics and has inevitable shorcomings. Commenting on this year’s QS rankings to The Sydney Morning Herald, ANU higher education expert Professor Andrew Norton said, “There is a lot of opinion in them rather than hard facts on what has happened … It may just be at this point that the perceptions around Australia have gone negative due to a known reliance on international revenue.”

Each of these rankings has very different criteria for placing institutions and this accounts for the very different results each ranking provides, with some universities doing well in one and poorly in another. The National University of Singapore may rank first in Asia in this year’s QS rankings, but ranks third in Times Higher Education’s (THE) Asia University Rankings 2022.

Critics of the THE rankings argue that the organisation’s methodology relies too heavily on citations, making it harder for universities that don’t use English as their primary language of instruction. With the odds stacked in favour of those that deliver academic content in English, it’s not surprising that European universities are under-represented in these “global” rankings. For more guidance on how to read rankings the right way, click here.