Not Just Oxbridge: A Guide to Britain’s Other Top Universities

Most emphasis is placed on Oxford and Cambridge Universities as the UK’s prime centres of academic excellence.

It’s not hard to see why these ancient seats of learning are so sought-after, but it’s also easy to get so swept away by the hype surrounding these prestigious establishments that you overlook the fact that the UK has numerous other high-ranking universities that are equally worthy of your attention. The universities in this article all come a deserving third place to Oxford and Cambridge for one thing or another, or even beat Oxbridge, in league tables and student surveys – though admittedly one or two entries on our list are rather subjective!

London School of Economics – the UK’s third best

Ranked in third overall place after Oxford and Cambridge in the 2015 Complete University Guide League Table, the London School of Economics is currently officially the UK’s third best university, and it also comes third after Oxford and Cambridge for the quality of its academic research. From the name, you’d think it was entirely devoted to economics, but in fact it has a whopping 19 departments and offers courses in a wide range of social sciences and other subjects – including mathematics, law, geography, anthropology and philosophy – in addition to its internationally renowned courses in economics and political sciences. Its full name, in fact, is the London School of Economics and Political Sciences, but that’s a bit of a mouthful to say every time. It’s fair to say that for economics it’s on a par with – if not better than – Oxford and Cambridge; indeed, the Complete University Guide places it second place to Cambridge and higher than Oxford’s third place for this subject. What’s more, you couldn’t get a much better place for studying economics than London, the economic centre of the UK and a major player on the world financial stage; not only is this city buzzing with business talent, but it’s the perfect place for students and graduates to secure internships and graduate jobs with major international corporations. And the university itself is located in Westminster, the political heart of the country: undoubtedly a big source of inspiration for the institution’s aspiring politicians and economists.

Imperial College London – third highest entrance requirements

Oxford and Cambridge are notorious for their high entrance requirements, but they’re by no means the only UK universities to expect exceptional academic standards of their applicants. The Complete University Guide places Imperial College London in third place after Oxford and Cambridge for entry standards, a measure that’s calculated based on the average number of UCAS tariff score of new students. Imperial has a very strong reputation for science subjects and is often to be found in the top five overall UK university rankings. When you look at the stringent entrance requirements, it’s not hard to see how this has been achieved. Some of Imperial’s departments require exceptionally high grades from potential applicants; for example, its Department of Mechanical Engineering states that it requires “A*AAA or A*A*A in Mathematics, Physics and further relevant A-levels, one of which must be from Further Mathematics, Chemistry, Design and Technology, Biology, Electronics, Computing or Economics.” In addition to this, it requires at least a grade B in GCSE English Language, a university-wide stipulation. It’s little wonder, then, that Imperial’s graduates have such high employment prospects: the Complete University Guide ranks Imperial as the highest in the country for graduate prospects, which just goes to show that Oxford or Cambridge are by no means the only university names that will look good on your CV. What’s more, Imperial has the country’s third highest degree completion rate after Oxford and Cambridge – testament to the extraordinary undergraduate talent to be found at this university.

University College London – second best for medicine and best student/staff ratio

Medicine is one of the most demanding courses out there, but according to the Complete University Guide, the second best place – after Cambridge – to study it in the UK goes not to Oxford (that comes third) but to University College London. UCL’s award-winning Medical School has a plethora of prestigious teaching hospitals including University College Hospital, the Royal Free Hospital and Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. The Medical School takes 330 students a year, making it one of the UK’s largest; for those places, it receives 2,500 applicants (of which only 700 are interviewed), so it’s extremely competitive. Another UCL fact for you: it has the lowest student/staff ratio in the country, with 10.2 students per member of staff. That’s better even than Oxford, which has a ratio of 11:1.

Durham University – the third collegiate

Oxford and Cambridge Universities are famous for the fact that they’re divided into picturesque colleges, but they’re not the only UK universities to be structured in this way. Like Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Durham University has a collegiate structure, with its oldest college – University College, also known as Castle – being located in a Medieval castle. Although the university itself is many centuries younger than Oxford and Cambridge, having only been established in 1832, this collegiate structure, and the fact that some of the colleges are old and beautiful, makes it a popular back-up choice for students who’ve not made it into Oxford or Cambridge. Incidentally, Durham University is also currently ranked third best for maths after Oxford and Cambridge.

St Andrew’s University – the third oldest and the third best?

Founded between 1410 and 1413, St Andrew’s University in Scotland is the third oldest in the English-speaking world – and the third best university in the UK according to the Guardian University Guide. It’s not a big university, but it dominates the small seaside town it occupies, and a third of the town’s term-time population is said to be comprised of the university’s staff and students. It’s famously the university where Prince William met Kate Middleton, but the university was on the map as a top educational establishment long before the world’s most famous romance brought the eyes of the world there. The town itself is also on the map for its championship golf course. Interestingly, the university commands the fourth-highest grades in the UK for its entry requirements, and the Complete University Guide places it third after Oxford and Cambridge in the rankings for “Good Honours” – students achieving a first or upper second class honours degrees – which speaks volumes about the quality of its students.

Bath University – beats Oxbridge for student satisfaction

Bath isn’t just a beautiful Georgian city famed for its Roman Baths and Jane Austen connections: Bath University is one of the best in the country, and the best for some subjects, such as architecture. One of the things that makes it different from many other UK universities is its emphasis on work placements; 60% of Bath University students embark on an industry placement as part of their course, producing students who are better equipped to enter the workplace. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Bath beats both Oxford and Cambridge in the student satisfaction stakes.

Manchester University – third most beautiful library

Oxford and Cambridge are known for their stunning old libraries – not just those within individual colleges, but university-wide ones such as Oxford’s world-renowned Bodleian Library. But Oxford and Cambridge don’t have the monopoly on aesthetically pleasing libraries. Just look at Manchester University’s John Rylands Library, a stunning neo-Gothic building, the Reading Room of which is majestic enough to rival anything Oxford and Cambridge have to offer. There are a few other contenders for the country’s most attractive non-Oxbridge libraries, including the Maughan Library at King’s College London, and the more modern library at the London School of Economics, which features a dramatic spiral staircase that gives it the look and feel of a science museum more than a library.

Edinburgh University – the third richest and third most popular

Founded in 1583, Edinburgh University is the sixth oldest university in the English-speaking world, so if you’re after a historic university, Edinburgh is up there with Oxford and Cambridge (and Edinburgh’s English Literature department is the oldest in the UK). It’s apparently also the third richest: it has the third largest endowment in the UK after Oxford and Cambridge, currently valued at £284 million. That means it has money to spend on investing in first class facilities, which, along with its excellent reputation, might have something to do with the fact that it’s apparently the third most popular university in the UK by number of applicants: there are around 47,000 applicants each year.

Newcastle University – best nightlife

According to a survey by Which?, the university with the best nightlife in the UK is Newcastle University. The northern city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne is generally famed for its nightlife, so it’s not surprising that its students consider themselves so privileged in this regard. Revealingly, Oxford and Cambridge don’t even feature on the shortlist, being smaller, university cities with much less in the way of nightlife (and students who are pushed much harder academically, leaving less time for enjoying nightlife anyway!).

Loughborough University – best for sport

Oxford and Cambridge occupy a prominent position on the university sports scene, with the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race only the most famous demonstration of the universities’ sporting prowess. But they’re not the only universities noted for their sporting activities. Loughborough University tops the list of sporting universities in the UK, and its reputation for sport is so strong that it was chosen as the location for the official preparation camp in which Team GB would train for the London 2012 Olympics. It’s recognised by Which? University as being somewhere “where sport is a large part of university life, with a wide range of organised sports teams, clubs and facilities open to all levels.”

Other universities at which you can go punting

Oxford and Cambridge Universities may seem unique in the fact that punting is an established pastime, but there are other universities at which you can indulge in an afternoon’s punting on the river – they’re just not as big on punting as Oxford and Cambridge. Such university cities include Durham, Lancaster and Bath.

The best of the rest

The three universities below are all popular in overall rankings, as well as being noted in other respects. Though not quite third best after Oxford and Cambridge, they’re up there with the UK’s best, regularly featuring in the top ten.

Warwick University

Warwick is a frequent fixture on the UK top ten universities list, and it’s in the top three universities under the age of 50. It’s an excellent choice of university if you’re into the performing arts, as its multi-venue arts complex, the Warwick Arts Centre, is the largest of its kind outside London (it’s second only to London’s Barbican Centre). Whether your interest lies in classical music, comedy, dance, film, visual art or drama, there’s bound to be something going on to interest you in one of the centre’s six performance spaces.

Sheffield University

According to a survey by Which? University, Sheffield University’s Student Union is the country’s most popular, with more than 250 societies. Among its societies is the award-winning Lemon Fresh Society, which apparently involves students working together in teams to solve puzzles and complete fun challenges, such as treasure hunts and murder mysteries. Playing host to famous DJs such as Reggie Yates, the university’s nightlife is also well regarded, at third in the country according to a 2012 Which? survey.

Exeter University

Exeter University had the honour of being named the Sunday Times University of the Year last year, based on all-round academic excellence. The largest of its three campuses is located in the attractive city of Exeter in Devon, which is close to the sea and features a stunning 12th century cathedral that gives the city a historic atmosphere that in parts rivals Oxford and Cambridge.

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