How the Rest of the UK's Top Ten Universities Compare to Oxford
If you’re dead set on going to Oxford, it’s important to remember that there are still four other places on your UCAS form.
The University of Oxford has just topped the world university rankings (a first for a UK university), but Britain has no shortage of other world-class universities to offer. Some are quite similar to Oxford; others, regardless of their impressive league-table ranking, are sufficiently different that it’s unlikely that a student with their heart set on Oxford would be happy there.
We’ve written before about the difficulty of slavishly following league tables, so we’ve chosen to use the top ten from the Complete University Guide, for ease of reference and because they tend to take a compromise position between other league table providers. It’s worth repeating that the exact place a university falls in the top ten or even top twenty is not that significant, so don’t pay too much attention to whether Loughborough is ahead of Durham or Durham ahead of Loughborough. If you’ve fallen in love with Oxford, here’s what you might think of the rest.
What are the key elements of being a student in Oxford? Intense tutorials with the greats in your field? Check! Punting down the river past beautiful architecture? Check! Trying not to cut up too many tourists while cycling through the city centre? Check! Cambridge and Oxford are sufficiently alike for the portmanteau ‘Oxbridge’ to be in common usage. Oxford is older (with Cambridge second-oldest of all UK universities), Cambridge is a little higher on the league tables (with Oxford coming second), Cambridge is a little smaller and quieter as a city, and the University of Oxford a little more determined to maintain its traditions than Cambridge.
It is reasonably safe to say that if you think you would be happy in Oxford, you would be very nearly as happy in Cambridge, unless following in the footsteps of Prime Ministers is particularly important to you – with the appointment of Theresa May, graduate of St Hugh’s College, Oxford has extended its lead over Cambridge in that department even further. The only problem is that you can only apply to one of either Oxford or Cambridge through UCAS – not both. Oxford and Cambridge are sufficiently agreed on their admissions criteria that Oxford doesn’t want to take Cambridge’s rejects and vice versa; allowing people to apply to both would double their admissions workload to no real gain. So if you’re looking for other universities to put on your UCAS form besides Oxford, Cambridge is sadly not the answer.
The London School of Economics is quite a lot like Oxford academically – high up in the league tables, internationally renowned, popular with foreign students and excellent at producing future heads of government and heads of state (two British Prime Ministers – Ramsay MacDonald and Clement Atlee – were lecturers there). They’re also both particularly known for their teaching in economic and political sciences. If that’s what you’re looking for in Oxford, you might well feel equally at home at the LSE.
However, the LSE is quite unlike Oxford culturally. Its elegant Georgian buildings house a university that is much less concerned with history or tradition, and the frivolity of Oxford life – with glitter-strewn sub fusc and various societies themed around Harry Potter – is not reflected in the more businesslike students of the LSE. Then there’s the simple fact of being in London rather than in a smaller city like Oxford. As an Oxford student, it’s hard to walk down a street without bumping into people you know, and the city is very much geared around the needs of the university. In London, you are much more anonymous.
3. Imperial College London
Imperial, like the LSE, focuses on a narrow range of subjects – in the case of Imperial, it’s science, engineering, medicine and business. It’s also academically similar to Oxford, though lacking Oxford’s famous tutorial system of focused one-to-one or one-to-two tuition. It also has a central London location, with one main and six secondary campuses that means it doesn’t share the close-knit feeling of Oxford colleges clustered within a 20 minute cycle ride of one another.
What it does have is an Oxfordly setting – its main campus is in South Kensington, surrounded by a cluster of academic and cultural institutions such as the Royal Albert Hall, the Natural History Museum, the V&A, the Royal College of Music and the Science Museum, among others. Wandering through Oxford can feel like the atmosphere is soaked with culture and academic success, and a stroll through South Kensington feels much the same. If you go a little further afield, you’ll find Hyde Park, or heading east, Buckingham Palace; Oxford has Blenheim Palace for the same kind of stately grandeur. Imperial students can wander into the V&A or the Natural History museum just as Oxford students wander into the Ashmolean or Oxford’s own Natural History museum. It’s this setting that makes Imperial one of the more Oxford-like of the London universities.
4. St Andrews
If you love Oxford because it’s basically Hogwarts, you should take a look at St Andrews. Founded in 1413 – about 200 years after the University of Cambridge – St Andrews is a collegiate university with attractive medieval buildings scattered through a small town. Sound familiar?
St Andrews is in some ways more like the stereotypes of Oxford than Oxford itself. For one thing, the town of St Andrews is much smaller than Oxford, so the sense of it being a university with a little bit of a town attached is much greater – and means that walking down the street, you’re even more likely to see everyone you know that you would be in Oxford. It’s also had royalty studying there much more recently than Oxford; St Andrews is famously where Prince William met Kate Middleton, while no British prince has studied at Oxford since the 19th century.
If you’re more into the tradition and culture of Oxford than you are the academic side of things, St Andrews would be a good choice. That’s not to say that it’s an easy ride – their entry requirements are A-levels at AAA-AAB – but it’s not quite as demanding as Oxford or as pressured as somewhere like Imperial.
Almost everything that can be said of how St Andrews compares to Oxford can also be said of Durham, bar the recent presence of royalty. In fact, if you’re after somewhere that makes you feel like you’re studying at Hogwarts, Durham can probably lay equal claim to Oxford. Several scenes in the first and second Harry Potter films were filmed in the stunning surroundings of Durham Cathedral; the chapter house, for instance, was the location for Professor McGonagall’s Transfiguration classroom.
Durham is a collegiate university, although the colleges are relevant more for accommodation and socialising than anything else, unlike at Oxford. One of those is University College, nicknamed Castle because it’s housed in a Norman castle, which is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site with Durham Cathedral. So if missing out on dining in the Great Hall of Christ Church, Oxford, would be a blow, perhaps living in a castle that is about as old as the University of Oxford itself would compensate a little? And Durham students are also committed to maintaining the university’s traditions, from formals in the Oxbridge style to ‘college families’, which is essentially a buddying scheme that has got joyfully out of hand.
It might come as a surprise that Loughborough gets such a high Oxfordliness score. It was founded just 50 years ago, in comparison with Oxford’s date of foundation – over 900 years ago and lost in the mists of time. It has no pretty medieval buildings, but is instead full of modern architecture in concrete and glass. It’s known for practical subjects especially, such as engineering and technology, while even Oxford’s vocational subjects are taught with an emphasis on theory. It’s on a contained single-site campus; if someone asks you how to get to Loughborough University, you can provide them with a postcode, unlike Oxford where the different parts of the university are scattered throughout the city. Loughborough epitomises the generation of successful 1960s universities that deliberately set out to be quite unlike Oxford and Cambridge. And while Oxford is famous internationally for its academic success, Loughborough is famous internationally for sport.
Record scratch. After all, the University of Oxford is also outstanding for sport. The list of Oxford’s Olympians is a mile long (so might be run in Oxford in less than four minutes). So if you’re attracted to Oxford for the chance to study in a library that’s hundreds of years old, you probably won’t be delighted with Loughborough. But if you’re desperate to take part in Summer Eights, then the Loughborough Boat Club will welcome you with open arms.
Warwick was founded in 1965, just a year before Loughborough, and the two universities have a lot in common. They’re both modern-looking campus universities that don’t seek to recreate the Oxbridge experience but instead offer something of their own. This may not be great if the Oxbridge experience is exactly what you’re looking for.
On the other hand, Warwick is also home to the Warwick Arts Centre, which is the largest venue of its kind in the UK outside London. So if one of your hopes for going to Oxford was getting stuck into the university’s thriving arts scene – or just seeing as many touring musicians, comedians and other performers as they come to your favourite society – then you can do much the same at Warwick. If you start to crave the environment of buildings older than colour TV, many students choose to live in the pretty, historic town of Warwick or the even prettier, historic town of Leamington Spa (the even more historic, but sadly less pretty city of Coventry is also a popular choice) – so you won’t be entirely without historic architecture if that’s an essential.
Another university of the 1960s, Lancaster is about as unlike Oxford as it’s possible to be while still being an academically outstanding university in England. If you were to sum up the University of Lancaster in a single word, you might well choose ‘unpretentious’ – and Oxford, it must be said, cannot be described as unpretentious (and if we’re honest, we’ll admit that that’s partly why we love it).
Lancaster does have a couple of things in common with Oxford. First, there’s its strong academic performance – not quite in the same league, but nonetheless impressive. Then, Lancaster is another attractive medieval city, with Lancaster Castle built in the 13th century. There’s also plenty of handsome Victorian architecture throughout the city to enjoy if the modern campus buildings get a bit much. But all the same, if you enjoy a lot of fuss and ceremony, then Lancaster is probably not the Oxford substitute you’re looking for.
9. University College London
Its place on the league table used in this article is more modest, rounding off the top ten, but University College London gets a boost to its Oxfordliness score for being the only university other than Cambridge that has posed a threat to Oxford’s league table position. Endless newspaper headlines were produced when the Research Excellence Framework rankings had UCL in second place, pushing Oxford into third. Though as our league table suggests, this doesn’t seem to have had much impact on UCL’s place overall.
Like Imperial, it shares the Oxford sense of being surrounded by history and academia. In the case of UCL, it’s the British Library and the British Museum that are minutes away from the main campus. The Bodleian in Oxford is a copyright library, meaning that it has a right to request a copy of every book published in the UK; the British Library serves the same function in London, so if access to a really enormous library is one of the perks of Oxford for you, you’ll be just fine at UCL. And it’s another university that does well for alumni holding political office, particularly “founding fathers” – the first Prime Minister of Imperial Japan, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana all went to UCL.
How do you think Britain’s other top universities compare to Oxford? Let us know in the comments!
Image credits: cambridge; lse; imperial; st andrews; durham; loughborough; warwick; lancaster; ucl; oxford high street; christ church.