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:
- Studying in the UK
- Universities in the UK
- Best universities in the UK
- Specialist universities in the UK
- Universities in the main cities of the UK
- Northern Ireland
- Useful resources
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
- Medical Sciences
- Mathematical, Physical, and Life Sciences
- Social Sciences
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.
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.
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.
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
- Warwick Business School – Located in Coventry, several publications rank Warwick Business School’s MBAs as number one in the UK.
- London Business School – This is one of the leading business schools across the UK. They display huge support for the LGBTQIA+ community, including a club within the university called Out in Business (OiB).
- Alliance Manchester Business School – With an education focused on industries, this institution has centers in Dubai and Hong Kong. It consistently ranks highly among the best universities in the UK for business.
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.
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
- King’s College London – Ranked 37th in the world, King’s College London is an internationally renowned university with more than 33,00 students from 150 countries.
- London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) – LSE specializes in social sciences and boasts a very diverse student body.
Universities in Birmingham
- University of Birmingham – Ranked 12th in the UK by THE, the University of Birmingham also scores highly in Physiotherapy and Tourism, Transport, Travel & Heritage Studies.
- Aston University – Aston University was named the Guardian’s 2020 University of the Year thanks to student satisfaction, employability and earnings, and sustainability.
- Birmingham City University – This university has four faculties and ranks fourth for social mobility among English universities.
- University of Leeds – This large university is known for its world-leading research.
- Leeds Beckett University – Leeds Beckett ranks sixth in the UK for career prospects and student satisfaction.
- Leeds Trinity University – This institution focuses on humanities and social science, receiving positive feedback for its teaching and student experience.
Universities in Sheffield
- University of Sheffield – As well as consistently high scores for teaching, research, and international outlook, the University of Sheffield has the best students’ union in the country.
- Sheffield Hallam University – This university ranks highly for student support and postgraduate experience.
- 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.
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
- Heriot-Watt University – More than one-third of the students at Heriot-Watt University come from countries outside the UK.
- Edinburgh Napier University – This university has three campuses that offer modern facilities for study and research.
Universities in Glasgow
- The University of Glasgow – Founded in 1451, the University of Glasgow is one of the oldest universities in the world. The Times named it Scottish University of the Year 2022.
- The University of Strathclyde – Ranked fifth in Student Satisfaction in a 2021 survey by the National Student Survey (NSS).
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.
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.
Universities in Belfast
- Queen’s University Belfast – This institution has an award-winning library with over 1.2 million volumes. It’s also ranked joint first in the UK for research intensity.
- Ulster University Belfast Campus – Ulster University offers part-time and short courses, undergraduate and postgraduate programs, and online options. In addition, it scores well for student satisfaction.
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.