The Best UK University For…

Image shows the beach at St Andrews. Choosing a university can be a time-consuming process, and one that’s made harder by the huge choice of top institutions available to you.

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Your decisions will be shaped by your personal priorities, and that makes it impossible for others – including us! – to advise you on which is the right university for you. However, what we can do is lay the facts in front of you so that you can make a more informed choice, and in this article, we do so with a look at various universities that can each be said to come top of the pile for one thing or another. The praise given to the various universities in this article may be subjective, but it should at least give you some inspiration and perhaps a different view to the one you’ll get in the university prospectuses.

Best for academic study: Oxbridge

Image shows the top of the Radcliffe Camera.
The tutorial system provides students with one-to-one attention.

It was impossible to choose one or the other, as both Oxford and Cambridge Universities excel at providing a world-class academic environment and they’re both at the pinnacle of the UK university league tables (and both come very near the top of the world rankings). The secret to their success lies in their tutorial system, in which students feel the benefit of one-to-one tuition with some of the finest minds in their fields. Students at Oxford and Cambridge are worked much harder than students at other universities, but they also receive individual attention that makes it impossible to escape involvement in intense academic discussion, which stimulates the mind and grows academic ability. What’s more, both Oxford and Cambridge provide an environment particularly suited to academia, with a scholarly atmosphere that comes from their status as two ancient and revered centres of learning, stunning buildings, small college communities, and unrivalled libraries and other academic facilities.

Best for the arts scene: Warwick University

Most universities have a thriving arts scene, but Warwick University takes some beating on this front. It’s home to the state-of-the-art Warwick Arts Centre, a venue that sees all manner of arts events put on throughout the year. Second only to London’s Barbican in size, it’s a space – or rather five spaces – in which the visual and performing arts can be enjoyed by students, staff and locals alike. Among the cultural offerings to be enjoyed at this superb centre are plays, music of every genre, comedy, dance, and literature readings. If you have an interest in the visual and/or performing arts, you’d be hard-pressed to find a university with a venue as good as this one.

Best for societies: Sheffield University

Image shows the red brick buildings of Sheffield University.
Sheffield’s Lemon Fresh society has become nationally renowned.

With universities all over the country offering an impressive range of student societies spanning every possible niche interest, hobby or sport, it’s hard to single out one university that does this better than any other. However, Sheffield University is sometimes touted as the university with the best student societies, thanks largely to its award-winning Lemon Fresh Society. The perfect society for making new friends, Lemon Fresh specialises in setting interesting puzzles and challenges that students work in teams to solve, such as a Halloween murder mystery and “scavenger hunts” around the city. Sheffield University is also home to societies dedicated to everything Automatic Control and Systems Engineering to Zumba, with baking, film-making, and even a flute choir all among the endless variety of societies on offer.

Best for nightlife: Newcastle University

The northern city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne is famous in the UK for its nightlife, making its main university a natural choice for ‘best nightlife’. It’s not just our opinion; Newcastle University came first in a student experience survey for the enviable array of pubs, clubs and bars on offer in this friendly city. And it’s not just popular with those who love clubbing; there’s plenty for those whose tastes lie in quieter evenings, with quiz nights, late-night swimming and cinema all among the options.

Image is a button that reads "Browse all Student Life articles."Best for architecture: Cambridge University

Image shows the Senate House in Cambridge under a layer of snow.
Cambridge’s architecture is more varied than that of Oxford.

In a move that students of Oxford University would doubtless find controversial, we’re picking Cambridge as the best university for beautiful architecture. This is because Cambridge is a smaller city than Oxford, and even more dominated by its aesthetically pleasing colleges, with their exquisite architecture framing perfectly manicured lawns. Among its most famous buildings is the ornate chapel of King’s College, which is home to an internationally-renowned choir best known for its recordings and televised Christmas Eve performances of traditional Christmas carols. The choir admittedly doesn’t have much to do with the city being architecturally unbeatable, but the chapel’s beautiful design certainly provides the ideal acoustics. What’s more, if the chapel looks familiar, that’s because it was built as a university counterpart to Eton College, which boasts a similarly impressive chapel.

Best for tourism: Edinburgh University

There are lots of universities situated in tourist hotspots in the UK: the London universities, of course, Oxford, Cambridge, Bath. But we didn’t want to be too predictable, so we’ve chosen Edinburgh University as the best UK university for those who’d like to indulge in some tourism during their time at university. As well as the world-famous Edinburgh Castle, which dominates the city’s skyline, there are numerous other things to see and do in this exciting city. There’s an extinct volcano, for a start – no other UK city can boast that. It’s called Arthur’s Seat, and it’s a brisk climb that gives you superb 360 degree views of the city. There are plenty of tours and ghost walks that you can go on to explore the city’s winding streets, as well as the Royal Botanic Garden, the Scotch Whisky Experience, and much more. Edinburgh hosts some fantastic events, too, being home to the famous Fringe comedy festival each summer, and the world-renowned Hogmanay celebrations on New Year’s Eve. On top of all that, it’s not too far from Scotland’s other major attractions, including Loch Ness – home to the mythical Loch Ness Monster – and the beautiful Scottish Highlands, a wild and majestic landscape of which Queen Victoria was a huge fan.

Best for landscape: Sheffield University

Image shows the wilds of the Peak District.
The stunning landscape of the Peak District is right on the doorstep of Sheffield University.

Universities tend to be located in cities, placing them in the heart of an urban landscape. We must, therefore, judge the landscape question by what lies in close proximity to the university city, and for that reason, we’ve chosen Sheffield University. It has the stunning Peak District – Britain’s main and largest National Park – right on its doorstep. A mere five miles from Sheffield, it’s the perfect place for students who consider themselves to be country folk, as it’s easy to escape the city and get out into this rugged landscape. It’s not just the Peak District’s natural landscape that makes it so appealing; it’s also home to Chatsworth, a stunning stately home that’s the seat of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Just 25 minutes’ drive from Sheffield and you can be enjoying its gorgeous, Capability Brown-designed landscape for yourself.

Best for the seaside: St Andrew’s University

Several UK universities enjoy a bracing seaside location, with university towns and cities by the sea including Portsmouth, Southampton, Aberystwyth, Bangor, Bournemouth and several others. However, St Andrew’s University gets our vote because it’s not only by the sea, but it’s academically brilliant too. The university – Scotland’s oldest – dominates the small town of St Andrew’s, and it’s the ideal place for those who’d like to be able to breathe in the exhilarating sea air and stroll along sandy beaches during their time at university (even if the town’s northern latitude and exposed position fronting the North Sea mean that it can be a little chilly). Also overlooking the sea in this beautiful town is its world-famous championship golf course.

Best for university-owned museums: Oxford University

Image shows the front of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
The Ashmolean was founded in 1683.

Universities and museums naturally go together, but it could be argued that no UK university can claim to have as incredible a collection of museums as Oxford University. The jewel in the crown of the university’s prestigious array of museums is the Ashmolean, the museum that gave rise to the concept of the university museum in the first place. As if this museum and its extraordinary collection weren’t enough, Oxford University can also boast numerous other fantastic museums, including the Pitt Rivers (anthropology), the Natural History Museum (fossils and other such things), the Museum of the History of Science, the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, and several others. Of course, the university also owns the Bodleian Library, which, though a working reference library, is also open for guided tours and entry to various exhibitions. What’s more, part of the Bodleian Library stood in for Hogwarts Library in the Harry Potter films, which sends its bragging rights through the roof.

Best for sport: Loughborough University

Although most universities have a plethora of sports clubs, and take part in high-level competitions, Loughborough is arguably the best-known university for its sporting prowess (if we leave aside the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race). It has the UK’s largest sports scholarship programme, so it’s no surprise that it’s a hotbed of international athletic talent. Its sporting facilities are so good that it was chosen as the location for training the Great Britain team (“Team GB”) for the London 2012 Olympics. Olympians Paula Radcliffe and Lord Seb Coe are both graduates of Loughborough University, which should give you some indication of its sporting credentials.

Best for fans of the Vikings: UCL

Image shows a painting of a Viking funeral.
Fans of the Vikings may also be interested in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge University.

UCL is one of just two universities in the UK (the other being Nottingham) to offer an undergraduate degree in Viking Studies. Not only do you become intimately acquainted with the history, archaeology and languages of the Vikings, but you also get to spend a year abroad at a university in Scandinavia. If you’ve ever fancied speaking like a Viking, the four-year course allows you to achieve near-fluency in Old Norse. Now there’s a party piece with which to impress your friends. We must also give a nod to York University for Viking-lovers, however; the city has a strong Viking heritage and boasts the famous Jorvik Viking Centre, a place everyone with even a passing interest in the Vikings should visit at least once.

Best for meeting your future spouse: St Andrew’s University

The purpose of going to university, as Rose’s mother tells her in Titanic, is to find a suitable husband. This may be an old-fashioned view, but the fact remains that university is a top place for meeting the person you’ll end up marrying. We couldn’t find any actual statistics on which is the best university for meeting your future husband or wife, so we chose the place where one of the world’s most famous couples met. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge famously met at St Andrew’s University, which gives this seaside centre of learning a second mention in this list. He studied Geography; she studied History of Art. He saw her taking part at a student fashion show. The rest, as they say, is history.

Best for punting: Cambridge University

Image shows punting on the Backs.
There are also some opportunities for punting in Lancaster, Durham and Bath.

Another appearance by Cambridge University in this list comes in the form of its punting credentials. Oxford and Cambridge are both famous for their punting, but Cambridge has the edge for a number of reasons. Firstly, the punting routes at Cambridge take you through the back gardens of some of its most famous colleges – which you can’t do at Oxford. Secondly, you can go punting at night in Cambridge – an incredibly atmospheric and magical experience – which, again, you can’t do at Oxford. And thirdly, you can punt to the nearby village of Grantchester at Cambridge. It’s the place made famous by Rupert Brooke’s poem, and it has an orchard in which you can have afternoon tea in the manner of famous Cambridge alumni from times gone by (notably the Bloomsbury Set, comprised of Virginia Woolf et al.). Though punting at Oxford is still a pleasant experience, there’s no equivalent punting attraction, unless you count the Victoria pub (which doesn’t quite have the same romance to it).
Hopefully this list has given you an alternative way of looking at some of the UK’s most popular universities. It’s subjective, of course, so if you have any thoughts on which universities you would have chosen, let us know in the comments below!


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Image credits: banner; Radcliffe Camera; Sheffield; Cambridge; Peak District; Ashmolean; Vikings; punting.