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Mapping the World’s Knowledge Hubs

Which cities have the highest concentration of top-ranked universities?

A group of graduates gather at Oxford University in Oxford, England, which topped Times Higher Education World University Rankings. (Paul Hackett/Reuters)

The global economy is increasingly powered by innovation and knowledge, and great universities are a key source of those, functioning as catalysts of the knowledge economy. Leading-edge universities form the axis of tech hubs like the Bay Area (Stanford, UC Berkeley, and the University of California at San Francisco), the Cambridge-Boston region (MIT and Harvard), and a regenerating Pittsburgh (Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh).

But what are the world’s leading centers for university knowledge?

To dig into this, my Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) team charted the geography of the world’s 500 leading universities based on the latest 2016-2017 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. (Compare this to what we did last semester when we covered the the geography of American college towns.)

(Taylor Blake/MPI)

The map above shows the locations of the top 100 universities in the world, while the table below lists out the top 20 metros. Note the huge concentration of leading universities in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, with a sprinkling in Asia and Australia. There are virtually no leading universities in big parts of the Global South, including Africa and South America, or in much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Metros Universities and Rank # of Top 100 Schools
Los Angeles California Institute of Technology (2), UCLA (14), University of Southern California (60), University of California, Irvine (98) 4
London Imperial College London (8), University College London (15), London School of Economics and Political Science (25), King’s College (36) 4
Hong Kong University of Hong Kong (43), Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (49), Chinese University of Hong Kong (76) 3
Boston-Cambridge MIT (5), Harvard (6), Boston University (64) 3
Berlin Humboldt University (57), Free University of Berlin (75), Technical University of Berlin (82) 3
Beijing Peking University (29) and Tsinghua University (35) 2
New York Columbia (16) and NYU (32) 2
Chicago Chicago (10) and Northwestern (20) 2
Singapore National University of Singapore (24) and Nanyang Technological University (54) 2
Atlanta Georgia Institute of Technology (33) and Emory University (82) 2
Sydney University of Sydney (60) and University of New South Wales (78) 2
Melbourne University of Melbourne (33) and Monash University (74) 2
Pittsburgh Carnegie Mellon University (23) and University of Pittsburgh (80) 2
Stockholm Karolinska Insitute (28) and Uppsala University (93) 2
Munich LMU Munich (30) and Technical University of Munich (46) 2
Liège RWTH Aachen University (78) and Maastricht University (94) 2
The Hague Delft University of Technology (59) and Leiden University (77) 2
Durham-Chapel Hill Duke University (18) and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (56) 2
Utrecht Wageningen University & Research (65) and Utrecht University (86) 2

Tied for first place are London and Los Angeles, each with four universities in the top 100. Next is a three-way tie: Boston-Cambridge, Hong Kong, and Berlin all have three universities in the top 100. Another 14 metros feature two top universities each: Beijing, New York, Chicago, Singapore, Atlanta, Melbourne, Pittsburgh, Stockholm, Munich, Liège, The Hague, Durham-Chapel Hill, and Utrecht.

(Taylor Blake/MPI)

The next map, above, reflects a broader list of the world’s top 500 universities, and the table below shows the leading 20 metros on this score. The map again shows the concentration of the world’s top universities in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia, with blank spaces across much of the Global South, including South America and Africa, as well as much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Metros Total Top 500 Schools
London 15
Paris 12
Seoul 8
Melbourne, New York, Cambridge 7
Hong Kong 6
Sydney; Chicago; Stockholm; Tokyo; Washington, D.C. 5
Liège, Dublin, Copenhagen, Brussels, Barcelona, Philadelphia, Milan, Moscow, Los Angeles 4

London now tops the list with 15 universities among the top 500. This does not include nearby Oxford and Cambridge, which host the first and fourth leading universities, respectively.

Paris is second, with 12 high-ranking universities. Seoul is third, with eight of the top 500 institutions. Three metros have seven leading universities each: New York, Boston-Cambridge, and Melbourne.

Another five metros are tied with five schools each: Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Tokyo; Stockholm; and Sydney. There are nine metros with four: Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dublin, Copenhagen, Milan, Barcelona, Philadelphia, Moscow, Brussels, Liège, and Los Angeles.

Another 13 metros have three of the top 500 universities; 47 have two, and 261 have one.

But bigger metros will have higher numbers of global universities based on their sheer size. The last map shows the distribution of the top 500 universities per million people.

(Taylor Blake/MPI)

Obviously, this would mean that smaller metros—especially U.S. towns with one great university—would rise to the top. To control for this, the table below limits the analysis to global metros with at least five leading universities.

Metro Number of Universities Universities per million people
Stockholm 5 3.365
Melbourne 7 1.665
Boston-Cambridge 7 1.507
London 15 1.454
Sydney 5 1.109
Paris 12 1.107
Washington, D.C. 5 0.853
Hong Kong 6 0.820
Seoul 8 0.818
Chicago 5 0.525
New York 7 0.353
Tokyo 5 0.132

Now Stockholm rises to the top, followed by Melbourne, Boston-Cambridge, London, and Sydney. Paris; Washington, D.C.; Hong Kong; Seoul; Chicago; New York; and Tokyo round out the list.

***

The geography of leading universities is extremely spiky. It is highly clustered and concentrated in economically powerful metros and mega-regions, such as the Boston-New York-Washington corridor; Northern and Southern California; the “Chi-Pitts” mega-region (or Great Lakes Megalopolis) in the United States; Greater London, Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin, and a few other centers in Western Europe; Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Seoul in Asia; and Sydney and Melbourne in Australia.

Large swaths of the Global South, as well as huge spans of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia—and notably, the BRIC nations (Brazil, India, Russia, and China)—have a negligible concentration of preeminent universities. For this reason, these places continue to export their talent to the world’s leading knowledge clusters.  

In this increasingly spiky world, not only does the economic divide separating the world’s leading cities and metro regions from the rest continue to widen, the gap in knowledge generation and talent attraction—two critical functions of top universities—grows wider still.

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