Higher Education

Universities in the UK

Discover everything about the UK’s best universities, including the available qualifications and types of higher education institutions on offer.

UK universities

By Luisa Facincani Camacho

Updated 10-1-2024

Universities in the UK are well-known for their prestigious education and qualifications. For this reason, it is among the top choices for international students. There are great options all over the UK – although most people have heard of Oxford and Cambridge, you can also find great universities in the North, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, that’s not all – London regularly ranks as one of the best cities for international students.

Although studying abroad can seem daunting at first, the benefits are immeasurable. This can be an exciting opportunity to expand your knowledge and become a global citizen. What’s more – UK universities offer courses in a great deal of subjects, whether you want to study engineering, drama, languages, or something completely different.

If you’re thinking about studying in the UK, read on to find everything you need to know about the country’s universities, including the following: 


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Studying in the UK

There are over 160 universities in the UK offering undergraduate and postgraduate programs. Some are ranked among the best universities in the world. According to World University Rankings 2023, three British universities make the top ten: Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial College London. This ranking not only focuses on research but also international outlook, teaching, and knowledge transfer.

A desk with a laptop, bottle of water, and smartphone on it. The desk is by an open window showing a view of Bristol (old buildings including cathedral)
Photo by Mikey Harris on Unsplash

Furthermore, these universities score well on their environmental and ethical practices. People & Planet’s University League ranks British universities on matters such as recycling, water, waste, and workers’ rights. Twenty-eight universities rank as ‘first class,’ with scores ranging from 61% to 86%, suggesting they take environmental and ethical issues very seriously.

Currently, more than half a million international students are enrolled in undergraduate or postgraduate degrees in the UK. These students come from all over the world:

  • From European Union countries – 109,145 undergraduates and 43,765 postgraduates
  • From countries outside the EU – 205,690 undergraduates and 246,535 postgraduates

According to the statistics for 2022, the UK has the second-highest number of international students in the world. Although being immersed in the local culture is great for getting to know the country, having such a huge international community can smooth the process of studying abroad.

Pastoral support at UK universities

Another advantage of studying in the UK is that many universities offer pastoral support to their students. You’ll likely receive advice on finding accommodation, and many universities have their own health services, with access to GPs, mental healthcare, and more.

In addition, most universities have a students’ union. A students’ union is usually a building on campus full of bars, shops, restaurants, and offices. It’s a great place to make friends, as students’ unions hold events throughout the academic year, and it forms a central location to meet fellow students. In addition, students’ unions allow students to set up societies relating to hobbies, identities, and more. You’ll also often find support if you have any worries about your career, study skills, sexual health, drugs and alcohol, and settling in.

Universities in the UK

In the UK, the public sector expenditure on higher education in 2021–22 was £4.71 billion. Although the majority receive government funding, universities are considered private institutions. This happens because universities are independent and not state-owned. However, there are also fully private universities in the UK that receive their funding entirely from tuition fees.

Qualifications available

Regarding programs offered, universities offer undergraduate and postgraduate options. An undergraduate or bachelor’s degree usually takes three to four years to complete, and some postgraduate programs can be finished in just one year. There are different types of bachelor’s degrees, which include:

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA)
  • Bachelor of Science (BSc)
  • Bachelor of Laws (LLB)
  • Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MB ChB)
  • Bachelor of Education (BEd)
  • Bachelor of Engineering (BEng)

Besides the traditional programs, you can also enroll in shorter courses. Some options stand alone as qualifications or act as accelerated undergraduate courses.

A large gothic university building on a hill

Postgraduate degrees include master’s degrees, MBA courses, Ph.D.s or doctorates, postgraduate diplomas and qualifications, professional and vocational qualifications, and conversion courses. Some master’s degrees options are:

  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Science (MSc)
  • Master of Engineering (MEng)
  • Master of Architecture (MArch)

In Scotland, some universities offer an undergraduate degree in humanities or social sciences, known as the Scottish Master of Arts (Maister o Arts, Maighster nan Ealan – MA). While it has ‘Master’ in the title, it’s equivalent to a bachelor’s degree.

Types of universities in the UK

There are four main types of universities in the UK. Understanding their classification can help you decide which is the best option for you.

  • Ancient universities – are the oldest and usually most prestigious ones. They have higher requirements for entry and long-standing reputations for research. Examples of this type of institution include the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge.
  • Red brick universities – also enjoy an excellent academic reputation, but were established later than the ancient universities. They mostly exist in cities that were thriving during the Industrial Revolution.
  • Plate glass universities – these institutions were promoted to university status during the 1960s. They are often named after the county or region they are located in. Although these universities are more recent additions, they still score well in league tables.
  • New universities – these institutions, sometimes known as former polytechnics or metropolitan universities, received university status in 1992. Many of them are very innovative, offering courses for part-time students and subjects unavailable at more ‘traditional’ campuses. Although the requirements to get in are generally less stringent, many of these universities excel in specific subjects.

In addition to the above categories, you will come across specialist universities that focus on a particular area as law, music, dance, science, or art. Examples include the Glasgow School of Art and Cranfield University.

Although it may be tempting to choose your course based on the institution’s prestige, it’s worth considering other criteria. For example, if the university has a great reputation or high student satisfaction for your subject, or if you require flexible learning arrangements, it’s worth checking out a few options.

Best universities in the UK

According to the QS World Rankings 2023, four of the top ten universities were from the UK. There were also 17 in the top 100. These universities may change position according to the chosen site’s indicators, but they are all listed as the most prestigious ones.

University of Cambridge

This university is located in the city of Cambridge, England, and it is one of the oldest universities in the world. Founded in 1209, it has more than 20,000 students, of which over 9,000 are international students from 140 countries. Cambridge offers undergraduate and postgraduate programs and has 31 colleges with their own statutes and regulations. There are plenty of traditional courses such as law, medicine, and history as well as modern ones like computer science and management studies. According to People and Planet’s sustainable and ethical ranking, the University of Cambridge is ranked in 82nd position. Some notable students include Sir Isaac Newton and Sylvia Plath.

University of Cambridge students in graduation robes standing on grass outside a university building next to a row of parked bicycles.
Photo by Chris Boland on Unsplash

University of Oxford

The University of Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Although its foundation remains unknown, there is evidence of teaching at Oxford dating back to 1096. It is located in Oxford, England. The university has ranked first in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for six years in a row (2017–2022), and it comes 25th in the People and Planet University League. Oxford has more than 25,000 students, and 45% are international students from more than 160 countries. It is a modern and research-driven institution, and its prestige is long-standing. Oxford has four academic divisions:

  • Humanities
  • Medical Sciences
  • Mathematical, Physical, and Life Sciences
  • Social Sciences
An old cozy library
Photo by Nabeel Hussain on Unsplash

Courses range from archaeology, chemistry, and mathematics to modern languages, engineering, and theology. Notable Oxonians include C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Imperial College London

Located in London, near Hyde Park, Imperial College London ranks sixth in the QS World University Rankings. The university has 17,000 students from more than 125 countries. Science, medicine, business, and engineering form this institution’s main focus. In addition, the university offers more than a hundred courses, such as aeronautical engineering, biotechnology, and geophysics. They are ranked 66th in the People and Planet University League. Former students include H.G. Wells and Brian May.

A paved pedestrian area with tall glass buildings either side and a fountain in the middle.
Shadowssettle, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

University College London (UCL)

Located near Regent’s Park, University College London (UCL) was founded in 1826, and QS World University Rankings 2023 places it as the eighth-best university in the world. It has more than 42,000 students, of which 48% are international students from 150 countries. It has an impressive legacy as the first English university to receive women students and people from any religion and social background. UCL’s faculties include Social and Historical Sciences, Built Environment, and Laws, and offer over 3,700 courses. Regarding sustainable and ethical matters, People and Planet ranks UCL 19th. Mahatma Gandhi and Alexander Graham Bell were notable alumni of UCL.

A large red building with a sign in front saying
Photo by Leqi (Luke) Wang on Unsplash

The University of Edinburgh

Located in Edinburgh, Scotland, the University of Edinburgh opened its gates in 1583. It has more than 45,000 students, of which more than 15,000 are from overseas. The institution is divided into three colleges: College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine, and College of Science & Engineering. Overall, it has 21 schools that cover subjects such as Economics, Law, Mathematics, and Literature. The university ranks in 15th position in the 2023 QS World University Rankings and 72nd in the People and Planet University League 2021. This institution apparently inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes and was also home to Dolly the sheep.

A green lawn in a courtyard surrounded by university buildings

Specialist universities in the UK

Besides offering general subjects, some universities focus on specific disciplines, such as medicine, business, and arts. The UK is a great place to study if you’re considering attending a specialist institution.

British medical schools

  • Brighton and Sussex Medical School – This school is a partnership between the University of Sussex and the University of Brighton. Both institutions are located in Brighton, England, and have a great reputation.
  • School of Medicine, Dentistry, and Nursing (University of Glasgow) – Located in Glasgow, Scotland, it is one of the most prestigious Undergraduate Medical Schools in Europe.
  • School of Medicine (Cardiff University) – Located in Cardiff, Wales, this institution has an Athena SWAN Bronze Award. This award recognizes the commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine (STEMM).

Business schools in the UK

British art schools

  • Royal College of Art – Located in London, this university was founded in 1837. It offers a variety of art-related courses such as painting, fashion, photography, and sculpture.
  • School of Design and Creative Arts (Loughborough University) – This school is located in Loughborough, near Leicester and Nottingham. This university is one of the best in the UK for those who want to study art and design.
  • University of the Arts London – Divided into six colleges and five institutes, this institution offers a range of art-related courses. Some of its programs include fashion photography, interior design, theater, and illustration.
Students standing at a desk in front of mannequins in a high up glass building showing the London skyline
Students from the Royal Academy of Art exhibiting their work during London Fashion Week 2022. (Photo by
Eamonn McCormack/BFC
via Getty Images)

There are many other specialist universities in the UK that focus on areas such as specific geographic regions, economics, and other subjects.

Universities in the main cities of the UK

If you’ve chosen a subject, but you’re not sure where to live and study, read on to explore other British universities in the largest cities in the UK.


Universities in London

Universities in Birmingham

A red brick building on an autumn day
Photo by Korng Sok on Unsplash

Leeds universities

Universities in Sheffield

Sheffield cityscape centered on a tall building at dusk with lots of lights on in different buildings.
Photo by Harrison Qi on Unsplash

Manchester universities

  • The University of Manchester – This highly ranked university offers one of the most extensive ranges of course options in the UK.
  • Manchester Metropolitan University – Ranking number one in environmental and ethical performance in the People and Planet University League, this university is also well-known for its Business School.
Top of a modern grey building from below
Photo by Tak-Kei Wong on Unsplash

Universities in Liverpool

  • The University of Liverpool – The University of Liverpool offers more than four hundred courses in both undergraduate and postgraduate programs.
  • Liverpool Hope University – Divided into ten schools and departments, Liverpool Hope University offers courses in areas such as education, psychology, mathematics, performing arts, and sport science.


Universities in Edinburgh

Universities in Glasgow

Gothic university building early evening, rhododendrons in foreground.
Photo by Paulina B on Unsplash


Universities in Cardiff

  • Cardiff University – Cardiff is one of the UK’s leading universities, and it also ranks very highly in the THE impact rankings for sustainable development goals.
  • University of South Wales – This university is spread across Cardiff, Newport, and Pontypridd and is the second largest in Wales.
Concrete and glass building at the University of South Wales

Universities in Swansea

  • Swansea University – This University offers more than 50 sports clubs and 120 societies for students to join.
  • University of Wales Trinity Saint David – Formerly known as Swansea Metropolitan University, this university has campuses in Swansea, Lampeter, Carmarthen, Cardiff, and even London and Birmingham.

Northern Ireland

Universities in Belfast

Statue of an angel behind a man with a sword. The statue is in front of a gothic-style university building.
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Universities in Londonderry (Derry)

  • Ulster University Magee Campus – This university prides itself on its intimate learning environment in the northwest of Northern Ireland.
  • North West Regional College – Divided into five campuses, North West Regional College offers higher national diplomas, foundation degrees, and vocational courses.

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