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Out Now: QS World University Rankings by Subject 2021

By Craig O

Updated March 19, 2021 Updated March 19, 2021
  • This year's rankings feature 51 subjects across five broad subject areas
  • Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) share the most number-one positions with 12 each
  • 13 subject tables are topped by a UK university, with the University of Oxford accounting for nearly half of those (five)
  • 1,440 universities included in total this year

The QS World University Rankings by Subject 2021 has been released, revealing the top universities for 51 different subjects across five broad subject areas.

This year's ranking analysed nearly 14,000 individual university programs from 1,440 universities across 85 locations around the world. If you're wondering which university is right for you, there really is no better place to start your search.

Two universities stand out in particular this year, with Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) both ranked as the best university in the world for a dozen subjects - more than any other university.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the UK's best-performing university is the University of Oxford, which is number one for five subjects.

How are the subject rankings calculated?

Every university included in this year's rankings is assessed based on four indicators: its reputation among academics, its reputation among global employers, the number of research citations the university achieves per paper in that subject, and something called 'H-index', which measures the productivity and impact of each published scientist or scholar at a university. More information about each of these can be found in our methodology.

This combination of indicators allows us to measure how each university is regarded externally and the quality of academic activity that occurs within that university. The universities that perform the best across all four indicators will be the ones which feature towards the top of each individual subject ranking.

However, if you're particularly interested in which universities performed well for just one of the indicators - employer reputation, for example - you can use the rankings tables to sort the results by that particular indicator. 

What are the big changes since last year's rankings?

Consistently high standards at the world's top universities mean that there aren't many changes towards the top of this year's subject rankings. However, there are plenty of interesting trends in each region of the world which you might want to consider when choosing a university.

In Asia, Chinese universities now have a record number of top-50 positions across the entire subject rankings, while two subjects are topped by universities from Singapore. However, Japanese universities continue to decline in performance, partly due to decades of underfunding for research and PhD students. 

Australian universities have also under-performed compared to last year, with the lowest number of university programs ranked in the top 10 for three years. 

Elsewhere, there's good news for Russian universities which now have a record number of top-20 appearances. And no university around the world is included in the top 50 for a subject more than the University of Toronto in Canada.

What do the best universities have in common?

Jack Moran, QS spokesperson for the subject rankings, identifies three factors that are shared by this year's best-performing universities:

"First, an international outlook – both in terms of faculty body and research relationships – correlates strongly with improved performance.

"Second, rising universities have received strong targeted investment from governments over a decade or more – particularly in China, Russia, and Singapore.

"Third, improving relationships with industry is correlated with better employment, research, and innovation outcomes.” 

Obviously, this doesn't mean that every top university benefits from these three factors - or that lower-ranked universities have none of them - but this observation hopefully provides useful context for why some universities have improved this year.

What next?

If you're starting out in your search for the right university program for you, the subject rankings provide a quick and simple way to identify the top universities for your chosen area of study which can help you build an initial shortlist.

You can also use our Course Matching Tool or Program Directory to get more information about the individual university programs that are available and identify the one(s) that are right for you.

Once you have some specific universities in mind, check if they'll be appearing at an upcoming QS event for your region, as this will provide a perfect opportunity to learn more about the university and ask any questions you have about the program. Plus, attending a QS event means you automatically qualify for a QS scholarship!

This article was originally published in March 2021 .

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Written by

As Head of Content, Craig is responsible for all articles and guides published across TopUniversities and TopMBA. He has nearly 10 years of experience writing for a student audience and extensive knowledge of universities and study programs around the world.

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