Best universities in the UK 2020

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

September 11 2019
University of Oxford, University Church of St Mary the Virgin

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 100 best UK universities and colleges, according to the trusted Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020.

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 university 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 100 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 the University of 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 among the most famous alumni.

Within six months of graduating from the university, 95 per cent of Oxford students are in employment or further study.

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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 away from London. 

The university is home to more than 18,000 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 graduates 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 16,000 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 is based next to 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. 

Close to 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 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 disputed 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 lectures at the 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 the LSE while enrolled on the Bar course at Gray’s Inn in London.

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Best universities in the UK 2020

Click each institution to view its full World University Rankings 2020 results 

UK rank 2020  World University Rank 2020  University City/town
1  1  University of Oxford Oxford
2  3  University of Cambridge Cambridge
3  10  Imperial College London London
4  15  UCL London
5  =27  London School of Economics and Political Science London
6  30  University of Edinburgh Edinburgh
7  =36  King’s College London London
8  =55  University of Manchester Manchester
9  77  University of Warwick Warwick
10  87  University of Bristol Bristol
11  =99  University of Glasgow Glasgow
12  =110  Queen Mary University of London London
13  112  University of Birmingham Birmingham
14  =117  University of Sheffield Sheffield
15  122  University of Southampton Southampton
16  =128  University of York York
17  133  Durham University Durham
18  =139  Lancaster University Lancaster
=19  =146  University of Exeter Exeter
=19  =146  University of Sussex Sussex
21  =152  University of Nottingham Nottingham
22  =155  University of Leeds Leeds
23  165  University of Liverpool Liverpool
24  =166  University of Leicester Leicester
25  =168  University of Aberdeen Aberdeen
26  192  University of East Anglia Norwich
=27  =198  Cardiff University Cardiff
=27  =198  University of St Andrews St Andrews
=29  201–250  University of Dundee Dundee
=29  201–250  Newcastle University Newcastle
=29  201–250  Queen’s University Belfast Belfast
=29  201–250  University of Reading Reading
=29  201–250  St George’s, University of London London
=34  251–300  University of Bath Bath
=34  251–300  Brighton and Sussex Medical School Brighton
=34  251–300  University of Essex Essex
=34  251–300  Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh
=34  251–300  Royal Holloway, University of London London
=34  251–300  University of Surrey Guildford
=34  251–300  Swansea University Swansea
41  301–350  Anglia Ruskin University ARU East Anglia
=42  351–400  Birkbeck, University of London London
=42  351–400  Brunel University London London
=42  351–400  Goldsmiths, University of London London
=42  351–400  University of Kent Kent
=42  351–400  Loughborough University Loughborough
=42  351–400  Northumbria University Newcastle Upon Tyne
=42  351–400  University of Stirling Stirling
=49  401–500  Aberystwyth University Aberystwyth
=49  401–500  Bangor University Bangor
=49  401–500  Bournemouth University Bournemouth
=49  401–500  City, University of London London
=49  401–500  Liverpool John Moores University Liverpool
=49  401–500  Middlesex University London
=49  401–500  University of Portsmouth Portsmouth
=49  401–500  Royal Veterinary College London
=49  401–500  SOAS University of London London
=49  401–500  University of Strathclyde Strathclyde
=59  501–600  Aston University Birmingham
=59  501–600  University of Hull Hull
=59  501–600  Keele University Keele
=59  501–600  The Open University UK-wide
=59  501–600  University of Plymouth Plymouth
=59  501–600  University of the West of Scotland Paisley
=65  601–800  University of Brighton Brighton
=65  601–800  Coventry University Coventry
=65  601–800  De Montfort University Leicester
=65  601–800  Glasgow Caledonian University Glasgow
=65  601–800  University of Greenwich Greenwich
=65  601–800  University of Hertfordshire Hatfield
=65  601–800  University of Huddersfield Huddersfield
=65  601–800  University of Lincoln Lincoln
=65  601–800  Manchester Metropolitan University Manchester
=65  601–800  Nottingham Trent University Nottingham
=65  601–800  Oxford Brookes University Oxford
=65  601–800  Ulster University Ulster
=65  601–800  University of the West of England Bristol
=65  601–800  University of Westminster London
=79  801–1000  University of Bedfordshire Luton
=79  801–1000  Birmingham City University Birmingham
=79  801–1000  University of Bradford Bradford
=79  801–1000  Cardiff Metropolitan University Cardiff
=79  801–1000  University of Central Lancashire Preston
=79  801–1000  University of Derby Derby
=79  801–1000  University of East London London
=79  801–1000  Edinburgh Napier University Edinburgh
=79  801–1000  Kingston University London
=79  801–1000  Leeds Beckett University Leeds
=79  801–1000  University of Roehampton London
=79  801–1000  University of Salford Salford
=79  801–1000  Sheffield Hallam University Sheffield
=79  801–1000  Staffordshire University Stoke-on-Trent
=79  801–1000  Teesside University Teesside
=79  801–1000  University of Wolverhampton Wolverhampton
=95  1001+  Canterbury Christ Church University Canterbury
=95  1001+  University of Chester Chester
=95  1001+  Edge Hill University Ormskirk
=95  1001+  London South Bank University London
=95  1001+  Robert Gordon University Aberdeen
=95  1001+  University of South Wales Pontypridd

Read more: Best universities in the United States

Reader's comments (1)

Dear editors, I notice under your heading above "Choosing a UK University," you have a link to Universities in Ireland. This is misleading, as none of those listed are in the UK. You also have a link to Universities in Europe. Maybe a better title for this whole section would be 'Choosing a University' or "Choosing a University in Europe" which (at least pre-Brexit) includes all of the above.

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