International universities make the grade

International university league tables are still dominated by the UK and the US, but tertiary institutions from Asia to Australia are increasingly offering a quality alternative.

Relocate Global Schools and Education Fair banner

Whether you are looking for the best boarding schools in India, online schools or researching international and private school fees, make sure to check out our latest Guide to International Education and Schools

The world's best universities - latest rankings

The Times Higher Education’s ‘World University Rankings 2023’ assessed 1,799 universities in 104 countries across 13 measures focusing on teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.The global top ten comes as little surprise. Some of the longest-established US and UK universities continue to dominate the best universities list in this, the largest, international university comparison. Yet developments further down the rankings show how school-leavers today in international and local schools have far more choice when considering their higher education options around the world.This is good news given the value of developing global citizenship in schools, and fostering international collaboration and experience to ensure thriving individuals, businesses and economies.

World’s top ten universities 2023

1. University of Oxford
2. Harvard University
3=. University of Cambridge
3=. Stanford University
4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
5. California Institute of Technology
6. Princeton University
7. University of California, Berkeley
8. Yale University
9. Imperial College, LondonSource: Times Higher Education’s 'World University Rankings 2023'

The shifting axis of excellence

The best universities are responding to today’s ongoing geopolitical shifts and turbulence. The big stories for 2022’s international university rankings are the pandemic’s impact on teaching and admission.African universities, for example, are growing in influence and impact, offering more options for students in the process. Five countries on the continent are ranked for the first time: Zambia, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Mauritius. Seventeen African countries now feature in the global ranking compared with nine in 2018, and 25 universities made their ranking debut this year.  Africa’s biggest score increase in THE’s measures comes in the number of citations. “A lot of local researchers were engaged at the start of the pandemic to finish off projects that global experts couldn’t travel for,” Gordon Adomdza, Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Ashesi University in Ghana, told the THE.“I experienced this myself. So that could have increased involvement in research by local researchers, hence the uptick in citations. The real test is if it sustains post-pandemic.”Nigeria, with its highest-ranking universities in the 401-500 bracket, has seen the biggest overall improvement in its scores, rising from an average of 27.9 to 31.5. This means it has overtaken Egypt to claim second place on the continent. Twelve universities in Nigeria – twice as many as last year – are now ranked.In Oceania, universities here have outperformed those in North America to secure the highest average overall score. Australia achieved the highest average performance score, with the University of Melbourne (34 in the global ranking) in the top spot, followed by Monash University (44 in the global ranking). The country is increasingly attractive to international students thanks to its very strong international collaboration, ongoing appeal to overseas students and healthy research funding. THE’s Rankings Architect, Phil Baty, said the standings in the region reflected the “increasingly competitive” environment. “You have to run very fast to stand still in the global rankings. Losing ground can risk a vicious circle of gradually losing access to global talent and partnerships.” Universities in Asia also fared particularly well, especially on international outlook. Together the figures suggest the economic pivot to Asia is also well underway now for tertiary education options.

Asia university rankings 2022 (2023 world rank in brackets)

  1. Tsinghua University (16)
  2. Peking University (17)
  3. National University of Singapore (19)
  4. University of Hong Kong (31)
  5. Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (36)
  6. The University of Tokyo (39)
  7. Chinese University of Hong Kong (45)
  8. Seoul National University (56)
  9. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (58)
  10. Fudan University (51)
Source: Times Higher Education’s ‘World University Rankings 2023’ and ‘Asia University Rankings 2022The expansion of world-class universities to more countries is having “a slight crowd-out effect in relation to US universities”, commented Simon Marginson, Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the University of Oxford, in the THE. “The growing number of excellent universities outside of the US is causing a small relative decline in reputation, but this is not because the quality of American universities themselves is impacted.“There’s no evidence that US research is weakening in an absolute sense, or US universities are in any way in decline.” As the global rankings indeed show, “This continues to be the most prestigious system in the world.”

Europe’s best ten universities 2023 (2023 world rank in brackets)

  1. University of Oxford (1)
  2. University of Cambridge (=3)
  3. Imperial College, London (10)
  4. ETH Zurich (=11)
  5. UCL (22)
  6. University of Edinburgh (29)
  7. Technical University of Munich (30)
  8. LMU Munich (33)
  9. King’s College London (35)
  10. London School of Economics and Political Science (37)
Source: Times Higher Education’s ‘World University Rankings 2023

Are students staying closer to home?

With the quality of universities boosted across the board, some of the traditional reasons for seeking undergraduate study abroad may no longer be as relevant as they once were, including for third-country nationals who may consider returning to their home country to study for a degree.This might explain research findings published by the Council of British International Schools (COBIS) in early 2022. These showed that the percentage of graduates from COBIS schools going on to higher education in the UK had decreased to 42% from 50% in 2020 and 53% in 2019. Schools are also reporting that their internationally minded students are considering a much wider range of destinations for higher education.There is also increasing evidence in the COBIS study of students choosing transnational educational options, such as studying at an international campus of a UK university or studying with a UK university via distance learning. Indeed, figures from Universities UK released after the summer 2022 A level results also show how the number of international students to the UK is yet to fully recover after Covid.

Does university choice impact employability?

But what do these trends mean for all-important knowledge sharing, cross-border collaboration, global citizenship and cultural awareness – all critical for 21st century challenges like climate change, social justice and what it means to be human in a digital age?International students – already well-educated, culturally aware, often at least bilingual and recognisably entrepreneurial by the goal of studying abroad – make valuable contributions to economies and businesses around the world.For every 14 international students in the UK, there’s a £1mn benefit to local economy. At its core, the UK Government’s policy paper, ‘International Education Strategy: global potential, global growth’ has the goal of increasing the number of international higher education students hosted in the UK to 600,000 per year by 2030.“In sharing knowledge, skills and innovation with international partners around the world, we can also generate opportunities to help raise education standards both at home and around the world,” it says, recognising the role of collaboration and knowledge transfer across borders in responding to shared challenges, as well as the quantifiable financial benefits.

What factors are impacting international students' decisions?

Yet for Dr Fiona Rogers, Deputy CEO and Director of Professional Development and Research at the Council of British International Schools (COBIS), the Government can do more to help make the UK a more appealing destination for international students.“While the pandemic has had some impact on the destinations students choose for higher education, the COBIS research showed factors such as the cost of university in the UK and potential challenges with UK visas had a much greater impact on students’ decisions,” says Dr Rogers.The COBIS findings preceded a new Ipsos study, released in October, showings growing public support in the UK for increased targeted immigration, including encouraging more international students.Dr Rogers continues: “If the UK Government is to meet its target from the 2021 International Education Strategy of increasing the number of international HE students studying in the UK to 600,000 per year, they will need to consider what further support and recognition they can offer to high-quality, accredited British schools operating overseas.”Alongside perhaps temporary changes to the global mobility of international students, a study by graduate employer branding expert Universum also shows the appetite for international careers has been dented by uncertainty in recent years. This again suggests international Gen Z talent is hunkering down – at least for now.However, given that most new graduates regard themselves as ‘globetrotting’, the consultancy is confident global careers will be back on the agenda. For now, vice-chancellors and boards are upping their game in the face of geopolitical headwinds around student visas on hot topics like wellbeing, equity and inclusion, safeguarding and free speech, as well as the quality of their accommodation and all-round student experience.Universities like Tokyo University, for example, are seeking to attract a dwindling number of younger people in these more travel-averse times. It is looking to offer more undergraduate courses in English alongside opportunities to transfer and finish degrees in Japan.Students at university in their home countries can also benefit from international experience through exchange programmes like Erasmus in the EU and the Turing Scheme, the UK’s global programme for studying, working and living abroad that offers once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for personal and professional development, as well as course- and university-specific scholarships.

What do graduate employers look for?

As well as the course, location, affordability and all-round experience, employability is also a key factor in choosing a university. The latest ‘Global Employability University Ranking and Survey’ (GEURS) run by higher education consultancy Emerging and published by THE defines employability as the combination of six drivers: internationality, academic excellence, specialisation, graduate skills, focus on work expertise and digital performance.Employers’ priorities have shifted since 2018 to the latest study in 2021 from academic excellence to graduate skills. Digital performance is also on the rise. For now, the top three universities for employability are in the US, despite the shifts outlined in THE and GEURS identifying “rapid global diversification of top universities and countries when measured by employability.”“When it comes to deciding where to study, employability is becoming an increasingly important factor,” says the study. “Quite simply, students and parents want to know that the often-high costs of a degree-level education will lead to a beneficial outcome when it comes to stepping onto, and climbing, the career ladder.“India’s universities see a clear rise for the first time in a number of years thanks to the rise of soft skills and digital literacy and technical and research specialisation. Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi holds on to 27th place and all other universities ranked last year (six total) climb an average of 20 places in the table. Bangalore University (249th) enters the ranking for the first time.”With so much on offer when choosing a university, students today really do have a world of opportunity.

Top ten countries for university employability

  1. USA
  2. France
  3. UK
  4. Germany
  5. China
  6. Canada
  7. Japan
  8. Australia
  9. Switzerland
  10. Netherlands
Source:GEURS 2021

Related Articles