The 10 Best Universities in the World

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Illustration of giant mortar boards on top of buildings in a skyline

Choosing a university is a difficult process. Aside from the short-term factors that you need to take into account, such as the reputation of the faculty, the quality of the course and the location of the campus, there’s also the long game to consider. After all, where you decide to study after leaving school can end up having a significant impact on your career prospects.

Therefore, it’s important to do your research. Uni and college tables can often give you a clear indication of which institutions are the best (although, of course, it’s worth remembering that this isn’t the only indication of suitability). To help you out, we’ve compiled a list from the latest QS World University Rankings in order to give you a definitive idea of the top 10.

So, if you’re looking to kick off your education – and your career – in the best possible way, why not think big and aim high? These are the 10 best universities in the world.

10. University College London (UCL)

Location: London, England

UCL was founded in 1826 and is marked as the first university in England to welcome women to university education. It was also the only university to accept students of all religions and social backgrounds before all other institutions in the country. UCL currently has over 18,000 students from around the world and it boasts 29 Nobel Prize winners in every decade since the Prize was launched.

UCL is highly reputable for its excellence in research – it was rated the top UK university for research strength in the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014) and it is there where a professor by the name of Sir William Ramsay won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1904 for his discovery of noble gases. UCL has 11 academic divisions with several of them positioned in the QS World University Rankings by Subject, including the UCL Institute of Education (1st) and archaeology (3rd).

9. University of Chicago

Location: Chicago, Illinois, US

A private research university founded in 1890, the University of Chicago has long maintained a reputation for academic excellence across a variety of disciplines, with 100 Nobel laureates, 27 Pulitzer Prize winners and countless domestic and international state officials among its alumni.

The Booth School of Business – one of the top business schools in the world – is part of the University of Chicago, while the University’s internal publishing house is the largest university press in the US. The Barack Obama Presidential Center, which will house several libraries, will also become a part of the college upon its completion in 2021.

8. Imperial College London

Location: London, UK

With a sole focus on science, engineering, medicine and business, Imperial College London is one of the most unique institutions in the country. Students at this university are dubbed ‘world-class researcher’” who focus on addressing global challenges through practical research. Hundreds of students receive hands-on research opportunities at the university’s many research centres as well as in different countries during the summer break at global universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US and Seoul National University in South Korea.

Since its establishment in 1907, Imperial College London has bragged more than 12 Nobel Prize winners, including Scottish scientist Sir Alexander Fleming, who famously discovered penicillin. The university also has numerous prestigious fellowships with the likes of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences.

7. University of Cambridge

Location: Cambridge, England

Although it doesn’t boast as much influence politically as its great rival, the University of Oxford (just the 15 Prime Ministers, in comparison), Cambridge graduates have been responsible for an incredible 120 Nobel Prizes, while its scientific alumni include such important figures as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking.

The university was founded by Oxford academics in the early 13th Century. It hosts a number of separate colleges (31 in all), while the university’s Footlights group is well known, too, having launched the careers of many British comedy actors such as Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and John Cleese.

6. ETH Zurich

Location: Zurich, Switzerland

The only top 10 entry outside of Britain or the US, the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich – otherwise known as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich or, more simply, ETH Zurich – is a STEM-focused institution noted particularly for its contributions to physics and chemistry. Indeed, since its founding in 1855, 21 Nobel laureates – including none other than Albert Einstein himself – have spent time at ETH.

Undergraduate courses are taught in German (although English-taught postgraduate opportunities are available), while a second more rural campus – Science City – was constructed to celebrate the university’s 150th anniversary in 2005. The school is also known for the prestigious Polyball event, a traditional ball dating back to the 1880s in which over 10,000 people annually take part.

5. University of Oxford

Location: Oxford, England 

As the oldest university in the English-speaking world (there is evidence of teaching as far back as the 11th Century), the University of Oxford boasts a history and influence in the UK that is quite remarkable. This includes 71 Nobel Prizes, 160 Olympic medals and 6 Turing Awards, while 27 British Prime Ministers (as well as numerous international heads of state) have received their education there.

Split into 38 member-colleges, each of which maintains its own unique traditions and culture, Oxford is known for its small teaching groups and tutorial-style of learning. It also features several prominent clubs and societies, including the Oxford Union (which regularly features world-famous speakers) and the notorious Bullingdon Club, a society similar in structure and influence to the Skull and Bones at the US’s Yale University. In addition, the university also boasts the world’s largest university press, as well as the world’s oldest university museum.

4. California Institute of Technology

Location: Pasadena, California, US

Founded in 1891, the California Institute of Technology – or Caltech, as it is often known – is a small but hugely influential research university, particularly within the fields of engineering and natural science. Indeed, the school currently boasts 74 Nobel laureates, while alumni have also contributed heavily to NASA missions and defence research projects. An unusually large amount of Caltech graduates also go on to earn PhDs.

The school shares a famous rivalry with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while, in recent years, has enjoyed a boost in profile through the television sitcom The Big Bang Theory, where many of the show’s main characters are fictionally employed.

3. Harvard University

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, US

The oldest educational institution in the US (the college was founded in 1636), Harvard is a byword for academic excellence and remains one of the most influential universities in the world. Alongside 8 former US Presidents, Harvard has also graduated a world-record 160 Nobel laureates, 14 Turing Award winners and 50 Pulitzer Prize recipients, as well as collectively amassing 10 Academy Awards and 108 Olympic medals. It’s also helped make a lot of people rich, too, with 188 living billionaires among its alumni.

It’s not just its students that set Harvard apart, either. While the school has pioneered numerous educational methods and processes that have been adopted or imitated by thousands of universities across the globe, its wider cultural influence has also been felt elsewhere. Many of the fundamental rule changes in American Football were made at Harvard, for example, while Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg – two former attendees – have revolutionised the technological world.

2. Stanford University

Location: Palo Alto, California, US

Established in 1891, Leland Stanford Junior University – or simply Stanford, as it is much more commonly known – is one of the wealthiest research universities in the world and, given its close proximity to and links with Silicon Valley, one of the most influential. To date, its alumni has amassed 83 Nobel Prizes, 28 Turing Awards (a record) and 270 Olympic medals, as well as produced 17 astronauts and 30 living billionaires.

Companies that have close links with Stanford include Google (which started life as a research project for PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin), Cisco (whose founders Leonard Bosack and Sandy Lerner were employed by Stanford while developing the company’s hardware), and Hewlett-Packard (whose founders, Bill Hewlett and David Packard, met while at the university). The school has also been responsible for some of the most ground-breaking discoveries in computer science history, as well as produced important research in the natural sciences.

1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, US

Founded in 1861 and located just across town from Harvard, MIT is a hugely important research university that has contributed heavily to some of the most important scientific achievements of the last 100 years. Its alumni contain 97 Nobel laureates, 26 Turing Award winners and 41 astronauts, while the university’s strong entrepreneurial culture has also resulted in the formation of some of the world’s best companies.

Unlike many other institutions, MIT does not award honorary degrees or athletic scholarships, while students are renowned for their elaborate pranks and ‘hacks’, many of which are the result of the aforementioned rivalry with Caltech. There are also numerous clubs, societies and traditions within the university, some of which host high-profile programming and robotics competitions.

Of course, as mentioned previously, just because a particular school has a good reputation, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the best option; there are countless things to consider when applying to university, after all.

But it’s also undeniable that attaining a degree from the universities on this list can be absolutely life-changing for your student life, career prospects and your potential network. If you can get the grades – and afford the tuition – then you should certainly consider them as potential study destinations.

Are you surprised to see some of the entries on the list of the best universities in the world or shocked others didn’t make the cut? Let us know in the comments section below!

This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 13 September 2017 and was written in collaboration with Angela Stephanou.