Where are Top Universities in the World?

An assessment of the World’s Top-500 universities carried out by AllAboutUni found that a country’s top university is usually located in the capital city. AllAboutUni is an independent, global and interactive website where visitors can obtain information about universities (global rankings, student reviews, university news and campus pictures).

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) is produced by the Institute of Higher Education at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Several indicators of academic or research performance are used to establish the ranking, these include highly cited researchers, articles indexed in major citation indices and staff winning Nobel Prizes.

The World’s Top-500 universities (2008) include a total of 38 countries. The AllAboutUni.com analysis looked at the top university in each country and whether it was located in the capital city. If there was more than one top university in a country and one of these is located in the capital city, the top university was considered to be located in the capital city. This was the case for Italy, where there are three top-universities (all ranked 101-151) and one of these is located in Rome (University Roma – La Sapienza). The analysis revealed that the top university was located in the capital city in 25 (66%) of the 38 countries.

The analysis was repeated for small and large countries, where large countries were defined as having a population of over 25 million inhabitants. This analysis revealed that in small countries, the top university was located in the capital city in 80% of countries (16 out of 20) and in large countries it was 50% (9 out of 18 countries).

In the small countries, the four countries where the top university was not located in the capital city were: Belgium (the top university was the University of Antwerp), Israel (University of Jerusalem), the Netherlands (University of Utrecht) and Switzerland (University of Zurich). In all other 16 small countries the top university was located in the capital city.

In the large countries, there are a number of good examples of the top university not being located in the capital city. In the United States, the top university (Harvard University) is located in Boston, Massachusetts, and not in Washington DC. In the United Kingdom, the top university (University of Cambridge) is not located in London and in Germany the top university (University of Munich) is not located in Berlin.

The reasons for this general finding go beyond the scope of the AllAboutUni.com analysis. However, factors like the economical, political, historical and even the religious development of a country will probably play an important role in determining the location of a country’s top-university. Generally speaking, these factors will favour the capital city and we found this to be particularly the case for small countries.

In conclusion, the AllAboutUni.com assessment found that top universities are usually located in the capital city (66% of all countries). This association was much stronger for small countries, where 80% of countries had their top university located in the capital city.

John Paget, Founder of the allaboutuni.com

website. John studied Economics at the London School of Economics and then completed graduate studies in the United Kingdom and Switzerland. The AllAboutUni.com website was launched in November 2007.


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