The best universities for art and design ranked for 2021, in a very different context

While many universities in the UK remain closed and those in the US continue to navigate Covid restrictions, the annual list of best higher education schools for creative subjects remains fairly consistent.

4 March 2021


Every year, global higher education analysts QS release a comprehensive list of the best universities around the world for 51 subjects. This year is no different, despite the fact that university life most certainly is, wildly so. In the UK, universities have moved most courses online, causing friction particularly on creative courses where practical, in-person learning is restricted, causing institutions and students to come to loggerheads over fees. In the US, universities have broadly stayed open but seen thousands of students contract Covid as a result.

Meanwhile, as if in a bubble, these institutions have been ranked on the same quantifiers: academic reputation and employer reputation, both gathered by survey, and research impact. Compared with last year, and many years before it, the ranked list for best universities in art and design subjects remains acutely similar, with the RCA at the top for the seventh year running, and only one new entry in the top ten: the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Parsons, which held third place last year, has disappeared from the top ten, with The New School appearing at number 14. The list is as follows:

  1. Royal College of Art, UK
  2. University of the Arts London, UK
  3. Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), US
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US
  5. Politecnico di Milano, Italy
  6. Aalto University, Finland
  7. School of the Art Institute of Chicago, US
  8. The Glasgow School of Art, UK
  9. Pratt Institute, US
  10. Art Center College of Design, US

Featured from 11-20 are Delft University of Technology and Design Academy Eindhoven, both in the Netherlands; Tongji University in Shanghai; Goldsmiths in the UK; RMIT in Melbourne, Australia; The New School, Cal Arts, Carnegie Mellon, and Stanford in the US; and Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

MIT topped the overall World University Rankings again, with Stanford and Harvard coming second and third.

In a statement, vice chancellor of the RCA Dr Paul Thompson attributed the accolade as a “testament to the enormous contribution and unparalleled academic excellence of our talented students, faculty and technical teams”. He added that the school’s employer reputation has risen, “which is gratifying to note at a time when the employability of our graduates is of paramount concern”. Vice chancellor of UAL Sir Nigel Carrington stated that, despite the pandemic, “we have continued to see students from all over the globe choose to study at UAL – in person and remotely. To retain our status, during a year in which we had to reimagine and transform the institution to deliver teaching and expertise digitally, is a credit to our staff and students.”

For a deeper analysis of what the future of creative higher education might look like during and after Covid times, you can read our feature Online Art school is Not Art School, for which writer Siham Ali spoke to students and teachers about the state of affairs.

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Jingwei Deng, MA Digital Direction 2021 (Image copyright © RCA, 2021)

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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