QS Best Student Cities - Methodology

QS Best Student Cities - Methodology

Discover the best cities around the world to live and study in with the QS Best Student Cities.

The QS Best Student Cities ranks top study destinations around the world to reveal which cities are the most student-friendly according to several factors, including affordability and desirability.

London has once again been ranked as the world's best city for students, with the UK capital's performance no doubt helped by the fact it's home to some of the world's most prestigious academic institutions, including King's College London and UCL (University College London).

Craig OCallaghan

Updated November 7, 2023 Updated November 07

Published annually, the QS Best Student Cities ranking showcases the best urban destinations for international students, based on a diverse range of indicators grouped into five key categories. Up to 2016, these categories consisted of: University Rankings, Student Mix, Desirability, Employer Activity and Affordability.

Since 2017, the QS Best Student Cities has also included a category called Student View, based on a survey of students and recent graduates around the world.

To be considered for inclusion, each city must have a population of over 250,000, and be home to at least two universities featured in the most recent QS World University Rankings®. For population metrics, the metropolitan area is used where possible. Current calculations suggest that 125 cities qualify for consideration.

The indicators used to assess each category are outlined below. Unless otherwise stated, the indicators are weighted equally within each category. The six categories are also given equal weighting when calculating the overall order of the index.

University rankings

This category aims to reflect the collective performance of a city’s universities in the QS World University Rankings®. The indicators used reflect the magnetism of the large numbers of universities found in large cities, as well as lending recognition to the locations of the world’s elite institutions.

Institution Count [x2]

A score based on a straight count of the number of ranked institutions in the city.

Indexed Score [x3]

This indicator takes into account the collective performance of all institutions in the city. Points are awarded for each institution depending on which ranking range they fall into:





















Top Score

This score is based on the position of the highest-ranked institution in the city.

Student Mix

This category is designed to look at the student make-up of the city, both overall and from an international perspective. Cities with higher proportions of students are likely to be better equipped with the facilities students need, while areas with high numbers of international students are more likely to be well-prepared to welcome even more.

Student Population

A simple score based on the number of students at ranked institutions as a proportion of the city’s population.

International Volume [x2]

A score based on the total number of international students enrolled at ranked institutions.

International Ratio [x2]

A score based on the total number of international students as a proportion of all students studying at ranked institutions in the city.

Tolerance & Inclusion [x2]

This indicator reflects the importance for many international students of choosing a study environment which is likely to be hospitable to their own cultural background, lifestyle and identity. This score is based on the Social Progress Index, which tracks indicators by country on a variety of aspects, including tolerance and inclusion.


This category aims to reflect the overall desirability of each destination. While students may be seeking exciting cities rich in opportunity, they (and their parents) are also likely to be concerned about the safety of the locality. A broad range of metrics is considered in an attempt to reflect these diverse requirements.

Economist Liveability Index [x5]

A score based on the results of the Economist Intelligence Unit's Liveability Index.

GaWC+ Score [x2]

A score based on the Globalization and World Cities index (GaWC), compiled at the University of Loughborough. An Alpha++ rating achieves 12 points, scaled down to 1 point for a “Sufficiency” rating.Further point boosts (up to a limit based on the number of cities featured) are available for inclusion in any of the following:

Safety Score [x2]

This score is based on the safety index compiled by Numbeo (the inverse of the crime index). The Numbeo results are augmented by data from the personal safety indicator of the Social Progress Index (country level), and The Economist’s Safe Cities Index.

In each case the results are scored based on the distance from the mean position, with the top cities in each index receiving a positive result and the bottom cities a negative result. In the few cases where there is no city data available, the mean of all cities in that country is applied.

Pollution Score

Health and wellbeing are also important factors for prospective students and their parents, and air quality can vary greatly. This aspect is not highly weighted, but provides an interesting accent in the desirability category. This score is also derived from data gathered by Numbeo. In the few cases where there is no city data available, the mean of all cities in the relevant country is applied.

Corruption Score [x2]

Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index provides insight into the presence of corruption in the public sector, of which higher education is typically a part, by country. This score is included to reflect the fact that international students and their parents may want to be reassured that their fees are reaching the right places.

Student Desirability [x2]

This indicator is based on a student survey which collected over 85,000 responses worldwide. The survey is available year round, but there have been two pushes for responses, the first from December 2016 to January 2017 and the second from January to February 2019. As part of the survey, students were asked to identify their ‘dream student city’ – the city they would choose if they could study anywhere. This score is included to reflect international students’ perceptions of the most desirable city destinations.

Employer Activity

This category aims to provide an indication of which cities are most highly sought-after as recruiting grounds among graduate employers. Two of the indicators considered are based on QS’s annual survey of employers worldwide, which asks recruiters to identify the institutions they believe to be producing the best graduates in their sector.

Domestic Employer Popularity

A score based on the number of domestic employers who identified at least one institution in the city as producing excellent graduates, in QS’s employer survey.

International Employer Popularity [x4]

A score based on the weighted count of international employers who identified at least one institution in the city as producing excellent graduates. Since all of QS’s work is focused on supporting international students and opportunities for mobility, this indicator carries more weight than the domestic alternative.

Youth Employment Bonus

A bonus or penalty is applied based on World Bank figures for youth employment in the given country. The top and bottom quartile receive a 5% boost or handicap, while the top and bottom 5% of countries for youth employment receive a 10% adjustment.


The fifth category recognizes the importance of affordability for most prospective students and their families. It draws on a range of sources to give an indication of how affordable a city is likely to be, when tuition fees and general living expenses are considered.

Tuition Fees [x3]

Usually the most substantial outlay for students, global trends suggest that tuition fees are likely to play an increasing role in shaping international student mobility trends in the coming years. This score carries twice the weight of the other affordability indicators.

Big Mac Index [x2]

A score based on this well-known index of retail pricing in cities worldwide, compiled and published by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

IPad Index [x2]

A score based on the iPad Index, compiled by Commsec, which compares the price of an iPad in different countries, giving an additional insight into local living costs.

Cost of Living [2]              

This score is based on the Mercer Cost of Living Rankings and provides a good counterpoint to the other affordability measures considered. For instance, Hong Kong is among the cheapest locations according to the Big Mac Index, but the second most expensive city in the Mercer Cost of Living Index, due to factors such as the high costs of accommodation. Considering this selection of indicators together provides a fuller picture.

Student View

This indicator is based on a student survey which collected over 85,000 responses worldwide. It provides students with an opportunity to share their experience of studying in a particular city.

Student Experience [x3]

This score is based on students’ ratings of their city in eight categories: tolerance andinclusion, diversity, friendliness, ease of getting around, affordability, nightlife, employment opportunities, arts and culture. The score is adjusted based on the proportion of international response.

Cities which come out on top of the Student Desirability indicator (see above) don’t necessarily score equally well for Student Experience, showing that the real experience may not match expectations.

Staying After Graduation [x2]

This score is based on the proportion of students that either stayed or said they would like to stay in their student city for at least a year after graduation. This reflects students’ perceptions of the availability and quality of employment prospects, as well as providing a reflecting on their experience of the city overall. This score is also adjusted for the level of international response.


Each indicator is converted into an ordinal by ranking the results and subtracting the rank of each result from the maximum. In some cases the underlying data is slightly reconfigured to ensure comparable application of weights (i.e. tuition fee values are organized into ranges). The resulting scores are combined with the weights shown above (these are relative weights within the category) and scaled to the top-performing city in the category to give a score with a maximum of 100 for each category, which are then summed to produce the final score, out of a theoretical maximum of 600.

The final table is presented based on an overall score out of 100, showing rank, score, country and city names and scores out of 100 in each of the six categories.

This article was originally published in February 2017 . It was last updated in November 2023

Written by

As editor of TopUniversities.com, Craig oversees the site's editorial content and network of student contributors. He also plays a key editorial role in the publication of several guides and reports, including the QS Top Grad School Guide.


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