Paris pips London at the post in the survey, released for the first time today by the research specialist behind the annual QS World University Rankings.
Boston is the top-rated US city, in third place, with Chicago (15th), San Francisco (17th) and New York (18th) performing less well than Montreal (10th).
Six European cities are in the top 10, while Singapore (12th) is the leading Asian city ahead of Hong Kong (19th) and Tokyo (19th). Australia is the only country with two cities (Melbourne 4th and Sydney 6th) in the top 10.
Based on 12 criteria, QS Best Student Cities 2012 takes into account the quality and number of internationally ranked universities, alongside factors such as affordability, quality of living and the reputation of local universities among employers.
The quality of living is based on the Mercer Quality of Living index, which draws on 39 factors to rate cities from political stability and crime, through censorship and limitations on personal freedom to traffic congestion, leisure and recreation, and climate.
The methodology of the QS survey can be seen here.
In the survey, Europe is ahead of the US on quality of living and affordability, with tuition fees in Paris, Vienna, Zurich and Berlin averaging under US$1,000 per year, compared to $30,000 in the US. Twenty European cities make the top 50 compared to nine each from the US and Asia.
QS Managing Director Nunzio Quacquarelli said: “Going to university is about more than just selecting the most prestigious institution. When a broad range of factors are taken into account, cities in continental Europe, Australia and Asia offer distinct advantages for students.”
London claims the top score for the quality of its leading universities, but Paris has a greater number of internationally ranked institutions alongside superior all-round scores.
Édouard Husson, vice-chancellor of Paris universities, said: “This research recognises the world-class study experience provided by Paris. We have more globally ranked universities than any other city, alongside low tuition fees. Moreover, Paris has four 'universities of excellence’ as a result of the Initiatives d'Excellence IDEX competition."
London Mayor Boris Johnson took a typically relaxed view: “I’m delighted to learn that London has once again been confirmed as one of the best places on earth to be a student. With the Olympic Games just around the corner, London is undergoing an enormous transformation.
"We’ve got twice as many bookshops as New York, and more museums than Paris. And by the way, our museums are free”.
See also Paris, Lyon et Toulouse dans le palmarès des 50 villes universitaires du monde préférées par les étudiants, Paris meilleure ville étudiante au monde, Paris first - QS Best Student Cities in the World 2012 et London 'second to Paris in best student cities'.