8 Reasons Why Oxford, Cambridge and London Have the Best Universities in the World

There’s no question that Oxford, Cambridge and London have produced outstanding universities.

In the QS World University Rankings, Cambridge sits at number 4 globally, Oxford at 6, University College London at 7 and UCL at 9. King’s College London is not far behind at 21, and the London School of Economics – always underestimated by international league tables due to its humanities focus – is at a still-none-too-shabby 37. It’s hard to think of anywhere else in the world that has produced such consistent academic excellence in so small a geographic area as this ‘Golden Triangle’ of cities.
But how have they done it? The outcomes of the Golden Triangle’s success are clear – educating many world leaders, Nobel prize winners and other notables, demonstrating excellent graduate prospects, and above all, leading the world in research. But the causes of this success aren’t quite as obvious. In this article, we take a look at the ingredients that have made the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London so exceptional.

1. They have built up their reputations and expertise over centuries

One of the biggest factors in making the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London so successful is their pure longevity, especially in the cases of Oxford and Cambridge. The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209, and the University of Oxford was founded so long ago that the exact date of foundation is lost in time; the earliest record of university teaching in the city dates from 1096.

The most successful London universities are brand new by comparison, but even they are among the UK’s older universities. UCL was founded in 1826, King’s College in 1829 and the LSE in 1895 – all falling into the first 20 universities to be founded in the UK.
Not all of the UK’s oldest universities have been so successful; for instance, the University of Wales, Lampeter, now merged into the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, was founded in 1822 but is academically much weaker than its London peers. (It is worth noting that this may not be seen as a failing on the part of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David; they have prioritised vocational teaching over academic success). Similarly, there are some very successful new universities, such as Lancaster University (founded 1964; ranked in the top 10 of the Guardian’s 2017 university league table). But in general, older universities that have had decades or centuries to establish their reputations and expertise rank more highly than their more newly established competitors.

2. They are extremely wealthy

Of all of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, Trinity College, Cambridge is the wealthiest. How wealthy? Cambridge University as a whole has assets of approximately £4 billion, with Oxford coming second with £3.3 billion, and all other British universities – yes, all of them – totalling £2 billion.

But these figures disguise the differences in wealth between colleges; Trinity College’s considerable landholdings are worth £800 million alone, a full fifth of Cambridge University’s total assets. The college also holds a fifty percent stake in a portfolio of Tesco supermarkets, worth £400 million – among many other holdings. Even the poorest college, Hughes Hall, has an endowment of £3.2 million, and the poorer colleges are usually supported by the richer ones. It’s usually the older colleges that are wealthier, their fortunes buoyed by the rise in the value of the land that formed their endowment over time.
The London universities are less wealthy in terms of their endowments, but Imperial, the LSE, UCL and KCL all have endowments of over £100 million. The LSE has also educated more billionaires than any other European university, and has the wealthiest graduates on average of any British university – so while their endowment may not be at Oxbridge levels, their alumni fundraising certainly is.
The utility of wealth in creating success is reasonably obvious. It enables these universities to afford outstanding facilities, to attract the best staff, and to support bright students generously, so that they won’t be distracted from their studies by worrying if they can pay the rent. And that means that the financially struggling student who might have dropped out from being unable to make ends meet elsewhere could complete their studies and go on to a glittering future.

3. They are located in famous cities

It’s hard to say what Oxford and Cambridge might be without their world-famous universities, given that the cities and the universities have grown around one another for hundreds of years. Presumably there would not be so many beautiful medieval buildings still remaining in either city centre were it not for the desire of the colleges to preserve their heritage.

But in the case of London, it was already a great city by the time any universities were founded there, mostly beginning in the early 19th century (a handful of specialist colleges had been founded before this). This meant that when those first universities and colleges were founded, there was already a draw for students; they didn’t have to travel to Scotland, which had five universities of medieval foundation. Those new universities were on the doorstep of the Royal Society, the British Museum and the legal deposit collection of the British Library. In other words, the kind of resources that had accumulated to Oxford and Cambridge over the course of centuries were already ready and waiting in London. They also had plenty of wealthy people on their doorsteps to ask for contributions to their endowment.
In the modern day, all three cities are very attractive places to live, as evidenced by the fact that they have some of the highest house prices of anywhere in the UK. Not only are they pleasant places to study, but they are centres of employment; Oxford and Cambridge are among the UK cities with the highest employment rate. That’s inevitably a source of appeal for prospective students who don’t want to move in order to seek employment.

4. They attract students from all over the world

If you’re were trying to create a top-notch university from scratch, would you want to take the best students from a population of 60 million? How about 7 billion? This is why the international reputations of Oxford, Cambridge and London make such a difference; they enable these universities to draw the best and brightest students from all over the world. Twenty percent of students at Cambridge come from overseas, fifteen percent at Oxford, and it’s even higher in London: 24% at King’s, 35% at UCL, 41% at Imperial and a full 44% at the LSE, which is the highest of any public university in the UK.

There are consequences beyond pushing up the calibre of student attending. It also means that world leaders from every continent have attended universities within this golden triangle, which – alongside being a positive thing for Britain internationally – also helps these universities forge research connections around the world. This can be in straightforward ways, such as encouraging universities in their own country to seek partnerships, and in more nuanced ways, such as using their influence to smooth the way in countries that are usually less open to academics.

5. The teaching isn’t quite like anywhere else

It’s a generally accepted truth that low staff-to-student ratios result in better teaching. Having fewer students per member of staff means that everyone can get the personalised attention that they need, and no one will be allowed to coast by sitting at the back and keeping quiet. Instead, a small class ensures that the teacher gets to know each and every individual there, and can ensure that their particular needs are met.

It’s no different when you get to university, and this is another area in which the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London excel. Oxford and Cambridge are particularly famed for their tutorials (Oxford) and supervisions (Cambridge – but they’re both the same thing), in which one or two students are challenged to defend their thoughts by an expert in their field. It can be daunting, especially for shyer students or those who aren’t confident to speak up until they know a subject inside out, but it does produce rapid results. These are complemented with more conventional lectures, which aren’t usually compulsory.
The London universities don’t quite have tutorial/supervision-style teaching, but they do nonetheless have some of the lowest staff-to-student ratios of any university in the UK. Of public universities in the UK, the lowest ratio is found at UCL, with Oxford coming in second, Cambridge third, Imperial fifth, the LSE seventh and King’s College London eighth.

6. They have focused on excellence

Different universities have different selling points. For instance, if you look at a league table ordered by spend per student, research reputation, student to staff ratio or graduate career prospects, the universities at the top don’t shift around that much (although it can cause some pretty significant upsets further down the table). But if you change the order to be by level of student satisfaction, you get a radically different leaderboard. In the National Student Satisfaction Survey 2016, near the top were Keele (34th on the Guardian’s general league table), St Andrews (3rd) and Liverpool Hope (79th) – about as mixed a bag as you can possibly get.

In some cases, universities will undoubtedly have prioritised student satisfaction over academic excellence, just as they might prioritise sporting prowess, or vocational job prospects. Oxford, Cambridge and the leading London universities have chosen to prioritise academic excellence (at least in the past couple of centuries) over these other considerations. That means that while Oxford and Cambridge are top of every general league table, they come joint 20th on the student satisfaction survey, in the company of Bangor and Swansea universities, among others. The London universities come even further down the list. Most students will love their time there, but high levels of academic pressure aren’t for everybody.

7. They only take the best students

Let’s take a look at those league tables again. Another factor is the average entry tariff – this is the number of UCAS points that the average student has when starting their undergraduate course. At Cambridge, it’s 600 points (shortly to change when new tariffs are introduced), which represents more than three A*s at A-level – a somewhat hair-raising total. Oxford comes second with 577, and Imperial and the LSE claim third and fourth place, with UCL coming in seventh. In other words, these universities only take the most academically outstanding students.

This is something that students often misunderstand, especially if they’re used to American-style university admissions. For the most part, admissions tutors at the best UK universities couldn’t care less how well you play the piano, handle a cricket bat or even minister to the deserving – they just care about how brilliant you are at your chosen subject. While there are some scholarships based on extracurriculars, such as organ scholarships, these are only a financial aid once you’ve already been accepted based on your academic skill; there’s no leeway for talented sportspeople to get in with lower grades, for instance. This means that every class in every subject at these universities is filled with only the brightest students, and they encourage one another to excel.  

8. Success breeds success

As has probably become clear over the course of this article, one of the key reasons why the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London are among the best in the world is because they’re among the best in the world; success breeds success. Because they have such outstanding global reputations, the best students and the best academic staff alike flock to go there, and that boosts them to ever-greater heights.
In the early nineteenth century, they were the best because they were very nearly the only universities available. Fifty years later they became the first universities to allow women to attend (though Oxford and Cambridge were the last to grant women degrees) and as a result the best female scholars joined the best male students in following in the footsteps of those exceptional women who dared to be the first to claim a university education. In the 21st century, they’ve continued to invest, expand, lobby policymakers, and do whatever else is required to build on these deep and solid foundations of success.

Are you planning on applying to Oxford or Cambridge University? Why not get a feel for what it is like to live and study on these historic campuses by spending time at an Oxford Royale summer school. We have courses created to introduce students to a subject as well as programmes designed to prepare you for university.