Education and Skills

Here's why the same 6 universities are consistently rated the best in the world

A couple is seen in front of UC Berkeley's library. Every year, the same six universities dominate the global rankings.

Every year, the same six universities dominate the global rankings. Image: Reuters/Noah Berger

Phil Baty
Chief Global Affairs Officer, Times Higher Education
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Education and Skills?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Education is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


Listen to the article

  • Six universities, from just two countries, consistently dominate the world rankings for reputation and academic excellence.
  • But what really makes these places special is often their proximity to other centres of excellence.
  • New challengers may be emerging however — and they are climbing the Times Higher Education rankings fast.

Every year, Times Higher Education (THE) asks many thousands of academics across the world to name the very best universities in the world, based on their subjective — but expert — judgement. Every year, something quite remarkable happens.

From close to half a million individual votes from over 100 countries cast annually in THE’s global Academic Reputation Survey, and from a potential population of around 30,000 higher education institutions that exist in the world, just six universities — from only two countries — stand-out as being truly renowned academic brands.

Have you read?

Success breeds success for the university "super brands"

Ranked in the annual THE World Reputation Rankings, the six “global university super-brands” as we have come to call them, fall in the following order in the 2022 edition of the rankings out this week: Harvard in first place; followed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Stanford; Oxford; Cambridge and then the University of California Berkeley.

Across more than a decade of this annual exercise, Harvard has always been top, and while the exact order of all six has shuffled across the years, it is always the same six, followed by a significant drop in the number of reputation votes for the seventh placed university, which has always been Princeton.

Mark Sudbury, head of the World 100 Reputation Network, a membership group of leading university communications chiefs, part of THE, thinks that when it comes to universities, “success breeds success.”

He said: “The academic super-brands have come to embody the essence of successful universities — historic, attracting the best staff and students and the lion's share of available funding, and being part of national and global discussions.”

“And when considering the quality of institutions — whether through rankings or more qualitative assessments — success really does breed success.”

The top ten countries represented in Times Higher Education's world reputation rankings.
The top ten countries represented in Times Higher Education's world reputation rankings. Image: Times Higher Education

For universities, good things come in pairs

But what is it about these six universities, in particular, that they stand out so much that they can be considered “super-brands”?

Nick Dirks, who led one member of the super sextet, Berkeley, as its chancellor and who is now president of the New York Academy of Sciences, points out that the six institutions “come in three pairs — each pair connected by co-location in a region as well as by a host of other synergies that in turn have created an ecosystem that is far more powerful than any single university on its own.”

Stanford is paired with Berkeley in America’s San Francisco Bay Area, home to Silicon Valley.

“Stanford became a great university after the second world war through securing massive federal support for its research — research work that helped power the innovation of the Silicon Valley. But it also relied on the pre-existing resources of UC Berkeley,” explained Dirks.

“Berkeley had already created traditions of academic achievement, recruiting extraordinary faculty and students to the Bay Area, while also establishing a reputation for excellence in basic science as well as in almost all core disciplines. This allowed — and perhaps encouraged — Stanford to focus more on applied research in its growth strategy, though it too soon became a comprehensive university.”

Similarly, he said, in the UK, Oxford and Cambridge – or Oxbridge as the pair is regularly called — have been mutually strengthened by their centuries-old “connections and interdependencies.”

Meanwhile in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “Harvard’s traditional strengths… helped to empower as well as create a niche for Massachusetts Institute of Technology in its original focus areas of applied science and engineering.”

“There is little doubt that the innovation centres of the Bay Area and Cambridge, Massachusetts, owe much to the fact that each region had two top universities with complementary research strategies; in turn, the growing ecosystem of these two regions helped sustain and further power its local universities,” said Dirks.

“Cities or regions with only one great university could not compete with them, and so for years New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago lagged behind in innovation, science, and technology.”

Challengers are approaching — and that's a good thing

For Sudbury, however, there is no room for complacency. There are many emerging competitors to the traditional superstars.

Where, he asked, might the next university super brands come from?

China’s Beijing is one potential source. Having entered the top ten of the Word Reputation Rankings last year, from 13th to tenth place, Tsinghua University in Beijing takes ninth place this year. Its Beijing neighbour, Peking University, has moved from 16th to 15th to 13th in the last three years. Shanghai is not far behind, with Shanghai Jiao Tong University taking 28th place, pairing with Fudan in 39th.

Singapore is also an emerging world powerhouse with an all-important complementary pair: National University of Singapore, which has moved to 19th place, up from 24th, alongside Nanyang Technological University, moving up to joint 40th this year.

“Despite the super-brands’ ongoing success,” said Sudbury, “there is still a need to manage reputations — not least because the more visible a university is, the more likely it is to be a target for challenge.”

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

How to harness generative AI and other emerging technologies to close the opportunity gap

Jeff Maggioncalda

June 21, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Sign in
  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum