6 Reasons to Consider Universities Other Than Oxbridge

There’s little doubt that Oxford and Cambridge are the two best universities in the UK, but it’s just as clear that they aren’t right for everyone.

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Many students assume that if you have the academic ability, then to attend a UK university other than Oxford or Cambridge is a waste of talent. But that’s laughably false. In fact, it’s now the case that the average new Imperial student has better grades than the average new Oxford student, with an average entry tariff of 221.5 points compared to Oxford’s 219.9 (Cambridge still leads with 229.8) – in other words, there must be a good number of very bright students who could easily get into Oxford or Cambridge, but who are choosing Imperial instead. That’s despite the fact that Imperial comes 6th, 5th or 4th depending on which league table you consult (a process that’s trickier than it sounds).
If there’s more to your university choice than simply picking the highest-ranked university that you can get into, then how can you tell if you should be considering universities other than Oxford or Cambridge? Luckily, there’s no shortage of other great UK universities to choose from: a typical top ten might also include St Andrews, Imperial, UCL, Durham, Lancaster, Loughborough, Warwick and the LSE. In this article, we take a look at some factors that might lead you to choose another of the UK’s top universities.

1. Live in a different size of city

Do you feel most at home in a busy city?

Oxford and Cambridge – for all that their students will protest – are reasonably alike as cities. Oxford has a population of around 150,000 and Cambridge is slightly smaller at 125,000, but they are both, unavoidably, small cities. They’re large enough that you’ll usually have a couple of choices of supermarket within a reasonable cycle journey of your college (though Oxford and Cambridge students will only ever go to the nearest one) and there’s a lot going on in each city that isn’t connected to the university. At the same time, they’re small enough that if you embarrass yourself at a party, you will keep bumping into everyone who was there for the next week, and you might have to travel to London to see your favourite band when they go on tour.
For some, Oxford and Cambridge will both feel claustrophobically small. In both cities, the student population is relatively insular, rarely socialising even with the students at the city’s other university (Oxford Brookes and Anglia Ruskin), let alone mingling with non-students. That’s compounded by the collegiate system (more on that later). If the thought of never meeting anyone who you don’t already have ten mutual friends with on Facebook fills you with a sense of dread, it’s worth looking instead at universities in London, some of which are nearly equal to Oxford and Cambridge in international prestige. There, the total student population in the city is greater, you’ll be more likely to mingle with students at other universities, and when you need to escape academia for a bit, there’s a city of 10 million people waiting for you to explore it.
For others, Oxford and Cambridge have the opposite problem: they’re a bit too big. If you like to have open countryside within walking distance and prefer to live somewhere where your bicycle won’t be stolen every couple of years, universities like St Andrews (town population: 17,000) or Durham (66,000) might appeal.

2. Experience a different university culture

Have a think about whether a game of Muggle Quidditch sounds fun to you – or cringe-makingly nerdy.

As well as being a similar size, Oxford and Cambridge also share a distinctive university culture. Their quirky, uncool, close-knit atmosphere is a key source of their appeal, as with the possible exception of Durham, you can’t really experience it anywhere else in the UK. There are endless bizarre traditions, even to the point of the clothing that students wear. For some, living in a kind of Harry Potter universe full of Latin inscriptions, Victorian whimsy and TV detectives sounds like bliss; for others, it would become wearing long before their three years were up. Try asking yourself if you enjoy themed events, fancy dress, the works of JRR Tolkien or Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’s Jeeves and Wooster. If the answer is “none of the above”, then it might be that the Oxbridge culture isn’t right for you. (Of course, it may be that you hate all of those and still have a great time there. But it might be trickier to find your niche). It’s worth considering whether you might prefer the sporting atmosphere of Loughborough, or the heads-down focus of Imperial.
The collegiate systems used by Oxford and Cambridge also contribute to their particular culture. Instead of studying and socialising alongside your entire year group of a few thousand people, you’ll spend a lot of your time with people from your own college, which will be at most a few hundred people. You’ll get to know most of the people at your college by sight; at the smaller colleges, you’ll get to know most of them by name as well. This way of building a close-knit community is one of the real strengths of Oxford and Cambridge in some respects, as it encourages collaboration across different fields and helps to spark ideas. But it’s understandable that for some people, the college environment is just a little too small. While other top universities operate a form of collegiate system for accommodation (Durham and Lancaster, for instead), in none is it so fundamental as in Oxford and Cambridge.

3. Choose a course that’s right for you

Sometimes the course content and structure can matter more than the university where you study it.

One of the biggest reasons to choose a university other than Oxford and Cambridge is to choose a course that reflects your priorities and interests. One good example of this is Medicine, which at both Oxford and Cambridge is taught in a traditional manner, consisting of three years of preclinical study followed by three years of clinical studies based at a teaching hospital. That’s great if you’re fascinated by the science that underpins Medicine, but not so much if your interest is more hands-on, as it’s likely that you’ll be frustrated by how long it takes before you meet your first patient. By contrast, students studying Medicine at Imperial have contact with patients from their very first term.
In other courses the differences between top universities can be more subtle, but it’s always worth digging down into the course content to ensure it’s actually what you’re interested in. In general, Oxford and Cambridge courses tend to be more traditional (as do St Andrews and Durham) but the traditional/modern divide isn’t the only one you’ll encounter when you’re choosing courses. You might see modules in Geography at Cambridge like “Austerity and Affluence” or “Glacial Processes” and be excited to study them, or you might favour UCL’s “Human Ecology” or “Reconstructing Past Environments”. The differences might be in content (for instance, some English departments will focus on more modern texts while others start their course in 650 AD) or in approach (to stay with English literature, some departments still lean heavily on Marxist analysis, while others are more varied). What matters is figuring out what’s going to be most interesting for you.

4. Explore different societies and leisure activities

It’s a long journey from Oxford or Cambridge to see a sight like this.

Geography can play a key role in determining your hobbies at university. For instance, if you’re a keen windsurfer, caver or mountain climber, studying at Oxford or Cambridge will make pursuing your hobby tricky, as you’ll have to travel quite some distance to find the sea, a cave or a mountain. That’s not to say that having such hobbies at Oxford or Cambridge is impossible – there are dedicated student societies putting on coach trips to enable them – but it’s certainly harder. For golf or sea-based hobbies (provided you’re OK with wrapping up warm) then St Andrews might be a better bet. For mountain climbing, Lancaster is a short journey from the Lake District.
Beyond the hobbies that are geographically difficult, you might also want to consider the culture of the university and the city it’s in. Oxford and Cambridge are rightly proud of the range and diversity of their student societies, but if your interest is niche there, you might be one of only a handful of members. For instance, if you’re enthusiastic about Scottish dance, you’ll naturally have more opportunities to take part with a larger group if you go to a Scottish university.
Similarly, the culture of Oxford and Cambridge tends towards the quirky and intellectual, and if your hobbies don’t match that description, then you might find that a different university would serve them better. In particular, Oxford and Cambridge are rewarding for people who love getting involved in weird activities, whether that’s the Orchestra of Only Triangles Society or Harry Potter Knitting Club. If your tastes run more to conventional pastimes (Netflix, sports, video games) then you certainly won’t be alone, but you’ll stand out a bit more than you might at other universities.

5. Have more freedom

Having a porter who knows your comings and goings feels comforting to some, but not others.

Going to university, especially if you’re moving out of your parents’ house, can feel like a moment of great freedom wherever it is that you study. But Oxford and Cambridge universities prioritise helping you to achieve academically in whatever way they can, and that can mean what could be seen either as looking after you – or as babying you. For instance, it’s typical for colleges to restrict the number of nights per term that you can spend outside of your college accommodation, as exceeding that amount could mean you’re spending too much time partying and not enough time studying. Beyond that, you’re likely to have a “bedder” (Cambridge) or a “scout” (Oxford) who’ll clean your room, plus subsidised meals so you can avoid cooking. Some bedders/scouts see their role as keeping an eye out for the students they look after as well as just doing a bit of light cleaning for them. Oxford and Cambridge students are also restricted from taking up part-time jobs in term-time, and they aren’t allowed to bring cars with them to university without special permission.
If all of that sounds unduly restrictive or nannying, then it might be that you should look at other universities instead. While Durham has replicated some of these aspects of Oxbridge culture, such as employing people to clean students’ rooms, you won’t find many universities that look after their students or restrict their activities to quite the extent of Oxford and Cambridge.

6. Experience a different teaching style

Shyer or more introverted studies can struggle in tutorials and supervisions.

As with many of the features on this list, the teaching style is a key factor that makes Oxford and Cambridge so successful. But it’s also not right for everyone. An Oxford tutorial or Cambridge supervision consists of one or two students discussing their subject with a professor who is typically a leading expert on that topic. The student has to defend their arguments and have them be challenged until they get to the point where they can hold their own in the debate. It’s a style that makes you learn fast how to talk fluently and well about your subject, and how to come up with rapid-fire responses when your points are questioned. It’s idiosyncratic, and for some people, it’s a nightmare. If your style is more slow and steady than quick-thinking, or you express yourself much better in essays when you’ve had time to work through your ideas than you ever could do when put on the spot, then the Oxbridge style might teach you the skills that you lack – or it might make for an unpleasant and difficult three years.
Small-group teaching is usual at all top British universities, of course, and those small groups will include discussion and debate where students will be challenged on their ideas. But in most universities it’s not quite as challenging as in Oxford and Cambridge. This is also why some very bright students nonetheless get rejected following an Oxford or Cambridge interview; the interviewers can tell that they’re capable, but also that they might not flourish under the Oxbridge teaching style.

Would you like to experience student life in one of Britain’s top universities? Join us at our Oxford Summer School or Cambridge Summer School.

Image credits: St Andrews; Imperial; crowded London; Quidditchdoctor; mountain; porter; studying alone.