Best universities in the UK

The University of Oxford is top in a list of the best universities in the UK, which includes institutions in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

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September 2 2020
University of Oxford, University Church of St Mary the Virgin

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What are the top universities in the UK? If you want to study in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, which universities should you consider?

This UK university league table reveals the best UK universities and colleges, according to the trusted Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021.

The University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge take the top two spots, while three of the best universities in London complete the top five.


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Three universities in Scotland appear in the top 25: the University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow and the University of Aberdeen, while the best institution in Wales is Cardiff University, ranked 27th. 

For students looking to study in Northern Ireland, the best university in the ranking is Queen’s University Belfast.

Of the top universities in the UK, about 20 are in London, including well-known institutions such as Imperial College London and UCL, and more recently established universities such as the University of Westminster and the University of Greenwich.


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Top 5 universities in the UK

1. University of Oxford

One of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world, the University of Oxford attracts top scholars and students to its 44 colleges and halls. Entry standards are high and admission is competitive; on average, it receives five applications for each available place.

As is common in the UK, the university offers a number of joint honours programmes that combine two subjects at undergraduate level. In total, there are 250 undergraduate degree combinations. The combination of philosophy, politics and economics is a particularly prestigious degree course on offer, although it is no longer unique to Oxford.

Undergraduates and postgraduates belong to a college and often live in the college building or college-owned accommodation. Social life and recreational activities – such as rowing, cultural events and societies – also revolve around the college. Undergraduates are taught almost exclusively by tutors in their college, while postgraduate students are primarily served academically by a centralised faculty.

There are more than 100 libraries at Oxford, the most famous of which is the Bodleian, built in 1602. The city also boasts a number of museums, including the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which houses the remains of a dodo, and the Museum of the History of Science, which displays a blackboard used by Albert Einstein. 

More than 30 world leaders, 27 British prime ministers, 50 Nobel prizewinners and 120 Olympic medallists were educated at Oxford. Stephen Hawking, Hugh Grant and Indira Gandhi are some of its famous graduates.

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2. University of Cambridge

Like Oxford, the University of Cambridge is fundamentally collegiate and is also one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world. The town is just an hour from London. 

The university is home to more than 19,000 students and 9,000 staff. There are 31 colleges, some of which date back to the 13th century, and more than 100 academic departments.

Cambridge is particularly renowned for excellence in mathematics and has educated some of the most famous British scientists. In total, 117 Nobel laureates are affiliated with the university and Cambridge-affiliated mathematicians have won 11 Fields medals.

Getting an undergraduate place at the university is extremely competitive; the acceptance rate is less than 25 per cent and more than half of rejected candidates have received A grades for all of their final school exams.

Undergraduates are taught via lectures and supervisions – intimate tutorials with only a couple of other students at most. The workload is heavy but terms are shorter than at many other universities in the UK.

Cambridge libraries are home to extensive collections of medieval manuscripts and the university museums display collections of archaeological artefacts and zoological specimens.

Notable alumni include actors, politicians, royals, athletes and cultural figures, including biologist Charles Darwin, environmental broadcaster David Attenborough, conservationist Jane Goodall and actress Olivia Colman.

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3. Imperial College London

Imperial College London is consistently ranked among the best universities in the world for science, technology, engineering, medicine and business.

It was formed in 1907 from a merger of three colleges in London and now has 17,000 students and 8,000 staff. The student cohort is extremely international and is made up of more than 125 nationalities.

In addition to top scientists, Fields medallists and Nobel prizewinners, Imperial also produces influential government advisers and policymakers. Many graduates go on to achieve breakthrough innovations in industry and business, and are highly sought after by blue-chip companies and start-ups.

Imperial’s main campus is near Kensington Palace in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, with other campuses around the city. 

The author H. G. Wells and Sir Liam Donaldson, head physician to the Queen, are among Imperial’s famous alumni.

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4. UCL

UCL was the first university in England to admit students irrespective of class, race or religion, and the first to admit women on equal terms with men, following the educational philosophy of Jeremy Bentham – the university’s “spiritual founder”.

It is one of the most selective British universities and is thought to produce some of the most employable graduates. 

UCL’s main campus is in the central London area of Bloomsbury. 

For undergraduate admission, candidates generally have all A grades at A level or a grade equivalent of 6, 6, 6 in subjects studied at higher level in the International Baccalaureate. The most competitive degree is the BSc in philosophy, politics and economics, which receives 30 applicants for every place. 

Nearly half of all UCL students are from outside the UK, with significantly more from Asia than from continental Europe. Famous alumni include Mahatma Gandhi; Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone; and Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who met the other members of his band at the university. 

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5. London School of Economics and Political Science

Of all UK universities, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) has the highest proportion of international students, at 70 per cent. 

The university has particular strengths in law, economics, history, philosophy and politics. Currently, 26 per cent of all Nobel prizes for economics were awarded to alumni or affiliates of the LSE. Famously, economic theorists at the LSE have long disagreed with theorists at Cambridge, particularly over solutions to economic problems in society.

LSE’s campus is in the Clare Market area in London, close to important institutions such as the Royal Courts of Justice, Lincoln’s Inn, the Royal College of Surgeons and the British Museum.

Like other top universities in the UK, LSE generally requires entry standards of A grades or higher.

Many of the postgraduate courses, such as in those in economics, management and law, have an acceptance rate of less than 7 per cent.

Prominent cultural, political and academic figures, including Nelson Mandela and George Soros, have given public talks at LSE as part of the university’s prestigious lecture series.

The main architect of the Indian constitution, B. R. Ambedkar, worked on a doctoral thesis at LSE while enrolled on the Bar course at Gray’s Inn in London.


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Best universities in the UK 2021

Click each institution to view its full World University Rankings 2021 results 

World University Rank 2021  UK Rank 2021 University City/town
 1  1 University of Oxford Oxford
 6  2 University of Cambridge Cambridge
 11  3 Imperial College London London
 16  4 UCL London
 27  5 London School of Economics and Political Science London
 30  6 University of Edinburgh Edinburgh
 35  7 King’s College London London
 =51  8 University of Manchester Manchester
 77  9 University of Warwick Warwick
 91  10 University of Bristol Bristol
 =92  11 University of Glasgow Glasgow
 =107  12 University of Birmingham Birmingham
 110  13 Queen Mary University of London London
 =121  14 University of Sheffield Sheffield
 =127  15 University of Southampton Southampton
 =133  16 University of York York
 =136  17 Lancaster University Lancaster
 =149  18 Durham University Durham
 =158  19 University of Nottingham Nottingham
 =160  =20 University of Leeds Leeds
 =160  =20 University of Sussex Brighton
 163  22 University of Liverpool Liverpool
 =170  23 University of Leicester Leicester
 =174  24 University of Exeter Exeter
 =178  =25 University of Aberdeen Aberdeen
 =178  =25 Newcastle University Newcastle
 =191  27 Cardiff University Cardiff
 =200  =28 University of East Anglia Norwich
 =200  =28 Queen’s University Belfast Belfast
 201–250  =30 University of Bath Bath
 201–250  =30 University of Dundee Dundee
 201–250  =30 University of Reading Reading
 201–250  =30 St George’s, University of London London
 201–250  =30 University of St Andrews St Andrews
 251–300  =35 Brighton and Sussex Medical School Brighton
 251–300  =35 University of Surrey Guildford
 251–300  =35 Swansea University Swansea
 301–350  =38 Anglia Ruskin University ARU East Anglia
 301–350  =38 University of Essex Essex
 301–350  =38 University of Kent Kent
 301–350  =38 Royal Holloway, University of London London
 301–350  =38 University of Stirling Stirling
 351–400  =43 Birkbeck, University of London London
 351–400  =43 Brunel University London London
 351–400  =43 City, University of London London
 351–400  =43 Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh
 351–400  =43 Loughborough University Loughborough
 351–400  =43 Northumbria University Northumbria
 401–500  =49 Aberystwyth University Aberystwyth
 401–500  =49 Aston University Birmingham
 401–500  =49 Bangor University Bangor
 401–500  =49 Bournemouth University Bournemouth
 401–500  =49 Goldsmiths, University of London London
 401–500  =49 Liverpool John Moores University Liverpool
 401–500  =49 Middlesex University London
 401–500  =49 University of Plymouth Plymouth
 401–500  =49 Royal Veterinary College London
 401–500  =49 SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College) Edinburgh
 401–500  =49 University of Strathclyde Strathclyde
 401–500  =49 University of the West of England Bristol
 501–600  =61 University of Hull Hull
 501–600  =61 Keele University Keele
 501–600  =61 University of Lincoln Lincoln
 501–600  =61 University of Portsmouth Portsmouth
 501–600  =61 SOAS University of London London
 501–600  =61 University of the West of Scotland Paisley
 601–800  =67 Birmingham City University Birmingham
 601–800  =67 University of Bradford Bradford
 601–800  =67 University of Brighton Brighton
 601–800  =67 Coventry University Coventry
 601–800  =67 De Montfort University Leicester
 601–800  =67 Edinburgh Napier University Edinburgh
 601–800  =67 Glasgow Caledonian University Glasgow
 601–800  =67 University of Greenwich London
 601–800  =67 University of Huddersfield Huddersfield
 601–800  =67 Manchester Metropolitan University Manchester
 601–800  =67 Nottingham Trent University Nottingham
 601–800  =67 The Open University Nationwide
 601–800  =67 Oxford Brookes University Oxford
 601–800  =67 Ulster University Ulster
 801–1000  =81 University of Bedfordshire Luton
 801–1000  =81 Cardiff Metropolitan University Cardiff
 801–1000  =81 University of Central Lancashire Preston
 801–1000  =81 University of Derby Derby
 801–1000  =81 University of East London London
 801–1000  =81 University of Hertfordshire Hatfield
 801–1000  =81 Kingston University London
 801–1000  =81 Leeds Beckett University Leeds
 801–1000  =81 University of Roehampton London
 801–1000  =81 University of Salford Salford
 801–1000  =81 Sheffield Hallam University Sheffield
 801–1000  =81 Teesside University Teesside
 801–1000  =81 University of Westminster London
 801–1000  =81 University of Wolverhampton Wolverhampton
 1001+  =95 Canterbury Christ Church University Canterbury
 1001+  =95 University of Chester Chester
 1001+  =95 Edge Hill University Ormskirk
 1001+  =95 London South Bank University London
 1001+  =95 Robert Gordon University Aberdeen
 1001+  =95 University of South Wales Pontypridd
 1001+  =95 Staffordshire University Stoke-on-Trent

Read more: Best universities in the United States

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