The best university cities of 2017

What are the top student cities in the world? Analysis of THE data reveals where the world’s best colleges congregate

February 13 2017
Cityscape, town

If you want to know what the best universities in the world are – a vital consideration for would-be students when choosing where they should apply – then Times Higher Education has got your back.

For more than a decade, we’ve been publishing the most authoritative global university league tables in the world. Now, our ranking data have been analysed by academics at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute to find out if there are any cities where the top universities congregate.

The findings, published on The Atlantic CityLab website, produce some expected and some not-so-expected results. If you were asked to name the best student cities in the world, you might think of the likes of London and New York.

But would Atlanta or Seoul be on your “top student cities” list? If not, you may well want to reconsider. They have some of the highest concentrations of great universities in the world – so if your idea of being in one of the best student cities involves being close to thousands of other smart undergraduates (and postgrads, for that matter) then you might be about to broaden your search.

First, the MP Institute analysis looked at the world’s top 100 universities, as identified by the THE World University Rankings. Here’s what they found.

Best University Cities: where the top 100 colleges are based 

Rank Metropolitan area Universities (world rank) No. of Top 100 schools
1= Los Angeles California Institute of Technology (2), University of California, Los Angeles (14), University of Southern California (60), University of California, Irvine (98) 4
1= London Imperial College London (8), University College London (15), London School of Economics and Political Science (25), King’s College London (36) 4
3= Hong Kong University of Hong Kong (43), Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (49), Chinese University of Hong Kong (76) 3
3= Boston-Cambridge Massachusetts Institute of Technology (5), Harvard University (6), Boston University (64) 3
3= Berlin Humboldt University (57), Free University of Berlin (75), Technical University of Berlin (82) 3
4= Beijing Peking University (29) and Tsinghua University (35) 2
4= New York Columbia University (16) and NYU (32) 2
4= Chicago University of Chicago (10) and Northwestern University (20) 2
4= Singapore National University of Singapore (24) and Nanyang Technological University (54) 2
4= Atlanta Georgia Institute of Technology (33) and Emory University (82) 2
4= Sydney University of Sydney (60) and University of New South Wales (78) 2
4= Melbourne University of Melbourne (33) and Monash University (74) 2
4= Pittsburgh Carnegie Mellon University (23) and University of Pittsburgh (80) 2
4= Stockholm Karolinska Insitute (28) and Uppsala University (93) 2
4= Munich LMU Munich (30) and Technical University of Munich (46) 2
4= Liège RWTH Aachen University (78) and Maastricht University (94) 2
4= The Hague Delft University of Technology (59) and Leiden University (77) 2
4= Durham-Chapel Hill Duke University (18) and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (56) 2
4= Utrecht Wageningen University & Research (65) and Utrecht University (86) 2

There are no big surprises high up. If you were to ask a panel of would-be students which cities they think are the best – and which have the best universities – you might expect to hear London, Los Angeles, Boston and Berlin mentioned.

But had you considered Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Stockholm or Beijing? What about Utrecht or Liège? They have some fantastic universities too. And some big names are missing from the list. Where's Paris, for example?

Explore some of these top university cities in more detail

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In some cases, you’ll notice that cities have been merged together to form metropolitan areas under the name of one town. Here’s how the data scientists at the Institute worked it out. 

For US universities, the researcher matched them to the city boundaries used by the US Census Bureau. For universities outside the US, universities were matched to metros using the UN World Cities boundaries. This classification covers all places with a population greater than 300,000.

For those that did not match any UN World Cities boundaries, the researchers matched them to the Brookings Institute global metro boundaries. For example, Aachen and Maastricht both mapped to Liege as they are within the Brookings Institute defined Liege metro and are both too small to register as a UN World City.

That’s the methodology stuff sorted.

If you’re still not sure about what the best city to study in is, then you’ll be pleased to hear that the researchers didn’t stop with the top 100 institutions. This next table looks at the cities with the most top 500 universities, as defined by our rankings.  

Best University Cities: where the top 500 universities are based

Rank Metros No. of top 500 Schools
1 London 15
2 Paris 12
3 Seoul 8
4 Melbourne, New York, Cambridge 7
5 Hong Kong 6
6 Sydney; Chicago; Stockholm; Tokyo; Washington, D.C. 5
7 Liège, Dublin, Copenhagen, Brussels, Barcelona, Philadelphia, Milan, Moscow, Los Angeles 4

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Ah – there's Paris! When you broaden the ranking to include all institutions that make the top 500, the French capital leaps into second place. We knew it was a great university city!

London still rules the roost, though, with 15 of the world's top 500 universities falling in its boundaries. And it's good news for those looking to study in South Korea, Australia, Japan, Belgium Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Italy or Russia too. They all have multiple universities sitting pretty in the top 500. 

Discover more of the top universities in these regions

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You could say there are still no major surprises in the two tables we've already looked at in this article. Most of the towns named as being top university cities are huge global metropolises, and where you get a high concentration pf people, you are bound to get great universities – after all, it's the people within colleges that make them the great institutions that they are.

But what happens if you break down our best university cities by the number of top universities per head of population? Well, the researchers have done just that – and it's good news for Sweden!

Best University Cities: number of top universities per capita

Rank Metro Number of top 500 universities Top universities per million people
1 Stockholm 5 3.365
2 Melbourne 7 1.665
3 Boston-Cambridge 7 1.507
4 London 15 1.454
5 Sydney 5 1.109
6 Paris 12 1.107
7 Washington, D.C. 5 0.853
8 Hong Kong 6 0.82
9 Seoul 8 0.818
10 Chicago 5 0.525
11 New York 7 0.353
12 Tokyo 5 0.132

Yes, Stockholm is – by this measure – the best university city! It has a remarkable 3.4 universities for every 1 million people – comfortably more than the next challenger Melbourne, with 1.7. The big-hitters of London, Sydney and Paris are still in there, as are the behemoths of New York and Tokyo. But if you are looking for great university student cities without a huge population, then this table might be the one for you.

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