What are the best UK universities?

Photo of a woman wearing a cap and gown and holding a diploma

The UK has some of the world’s oldest and best universities and you have probably heard of some of them. However there are many fine universities in the UK that you may not have heard of despite their high rankings.

Oxford and Cambridge have well-deserved international reputations as some of the world’s top universities. These two universities are sometimes called “Oxbridge” and they are constantly vying for the title of “best UK university.” UKUNI, The Complete University Guide and The Guardian all currently rank Cambridge as the best, but who knows – Oxford may take the top spot next year.

Oxford and Cambridge may be the most famous UK universities but they are certainly not the only good ones. For example take a look at the 2019 rankings from Times Higher Education, which has both UK rankings and world university rankings.

UK Rank 2019 WUR Rank 2019 University City/Town
1  1  University of Oxford Oxford
2  2  University of Cambridge Cambridge
3  9  Imperial College London London
4  14  UCL London
5  26  London School of Economics and Political Science London 
6  29  University of Edinburgh Edinburgh
7  38  King’s College London London
8  57  University of Manchester Manchester
9  78  University of Bristol Bristol
10  =79  University of Warwick Coventry
11  =93  University of Glasgow Glasgow
12  106  University of Sheffield Sheffield
13  =114  Durham University Durham
14  =116  University of Birmingham Birmingham
15  118  University of Southampton Southampton

Table obtained from Times Higher Education.

How are UK universities ranked?

UK universities are ranked on a number of factors, including entry standards, student satisfaction, research quality, continuation and graduate prospects.

The best universities rank highly in all categories. Student opinions are an important factor; if students are not satisfied with their courses, teachers or feedback, the university will not rank as highly.

Universities do not rank themselves. They are ranked by independent and impartial bodies such as newspapers and put into lists called league tables.

Each body has a slightly different ranking system which is why league tables do not match precisely. For example, The Guardian gives more weight to teaching quality than research quality or academic reputation, whereas the QS World University rankings favour research and reputation over teaching quality or students’ views. When you are looking at these league tables think about what matters most to you in a university and consult a table which weights heavily towards those things.

Keep in mind that these league tables rank universities on overall quality, not specific subjects. A university that is not in the top 10 overall may still be in the top 10 for specific subjects.

For example, the University of Strathclyde ranks in the top 10 schools for engineering and the University of York is among the best for English despite the fact that neither of these places ranks in the overall top 10. If you know what you would like to study be sure to check the quality of the subject, not just the university.

Another thing to remember is that the differences between universities that are ranked next to each other are minute. The difference between two universities can be as small as one percentage point, and most universities shift a position or two every year. If your university moves up or down by a little bit this is not a cause for concern.

Can a league table tell you which UK university is best for you?

League tables can be a good guide, but they cannot tell you which UK university is best for you. The best way to find out if a university is right for you is to visit it.

You can also read about what former students think about the university by looking at data from the National Student Survey, which students take in their final year. The survey asks for students to rank their overall satisfaction with different aspects of their university experience, including teaching quality, learning resources, and community feel.

When you are choosing which university to apply to, keep the following things in mind:

  • Does the university rank well in your chosen subject?
  • Does it have good links to industries? Is it located near a town or city where you can find work?
  • Is the teaching of good quality?
  • Can you afford the tuition fees? Does the university offer scholarships for which you are eligible?
  • Does the university have a large community of international students from your home country? Do they have strong links with your home country?