11 Underrated Universities and Degree Choices and Why You Should Consider Them

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When you’re choosing a degree course, it’s easy to forget that you’re by no means limited to the mainstream course options that everyone’s heard of, such as English or Maths.

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Similarly, when you’re choosing a university, you can get caught up in the hype surrounding the most famous universities and end up overlooking less prestigious institutions that offer you almost equally good prospects. There are lots of excellent courses and universities out there that don’t get the attention they deserve simply because they’re overshadowed by bigger, more established names. Because of that, they’re often less competitive than the big names – so you could even stand a better chance of getting a place on one of these courses. If you’re trying to choose your options at the moment, here’s some food for thought, covering our pick of some of the UK’s underrated universities, subjects and specific courses.

1. Imperial and University College London

Image shows University College London.
UCL’s alumni and staff include 21 Nobel Prize winners.

Both Imperial College London and University College London are unjustly seen as a step down from Oxford and Cambridge, but they’re so close in the league tables that the difference in teaching quality is virtually negligible. They may not be quite so old and prestigious as Oxbridge, but at numbers four and five respectively on the current world rankings, they’re actually higher than Oxford’s current rank at number six. Both have an excellent international reputation, and Imperial is particularly well-regarded for the sciences, so if you’re thinking of studying a science subject, Imperial should be high on the list of your possible choices. They’re both also good options if you’d prefer to be part of a bigger, more anonymous university community in a large city like London; both Oxford and Cambridge are small cities, and their college-based structure means that you’re part of an even smaller university community, which can get a little stifling at times. Being in the capital – the economic centre of the country – you’ll also have access to a wider range of internships and jobs for after you graduate.

2. Edinburgh University and 4 other UK universities in the top 50 world rankings

Edinburgh University is at 17 in the world rankings, making it the next highest world-ranked UK university after Oxford. To put that into perspective, lots of people in the UK view Durham as the next best thing to Oxford and Cambridge (perhaps owing to its collegiate structure more than anything else) – but Durham, though it’s high up on the UK-specific rankings, is actually way down the world rankings, at 90, putting it well outside the top 50 world rankings and way below several other UK universities, including KCL at 19, Bristol at 30 and Manchester at 33. That just goes to show that there are numerous UK universities that may be unjustly perceived as less prestigious despite the fact that they are actually offering what the league tables deem to be a world-class education. What’s more, Edinburgh, London, Bristol and Manchester are all fantastic cities in which to go to university in their own right.

3. Bath University

Image shows the Royal Crescent in Bath.
Bath is a beautiful city.

Bath University (not to be confused with Bath Spa University) is a classic example of an underrated university, because although it’s currently ranked 8th overall in the UK, it’s number one in the country for Architecture and it’s in the top three for a number of other subjects, including Civil Engineering, Psychology and Business and Management Studies (in the latter it’s second only to Cambridge). What’s more, as well as having superb sports facilities, it’s another wonderful city in which to go to university, with stunning Georgian architecture and beautiful parks.

4. Biomedical sciences

A degree in biomedical sciences is sadly not considered as prestigious as medicine, because of the glamour attached to the work of doctors and surgeons – but it’s an equally important academic discipline, because it underpins the work of those very same doctors and surgeons. A degree in biomedical science puts you in line for well-paid jobs in the booming biotech industry, as well as other roles supporting the medical sector, such as immunology or toxicology. There’s a shortage of science degrees in general, putting science graduates in high demand, but this particular branch is especially useful to have on your CV because it overlaps with several scientific disciplines, giving you a wide set of career options.

5. Italian

Image shows the town of Taormina in Sicily.
Studying Italian gives you great travel opportunities.

Italian is an oft-overlooked modern language course; perhaps it’s because most of us study French at school and modern language students choose to take it on to degree level because it’s easier than starting a new one. That, and the fact that France is just across the Channel and therefore especially easy to access for holidays and school trips. But Italianis an underrated degree choice, and it’s a shame because it’s a beautiful language spoken in a stunning country. An Italian degree gives you the chance to study one of the world’s greatest civilisations and stay in Italy for a while, soaking up its centuries of culture – both ancient and modern – and enjoying its incredible food and climate. As with any modern language, it gives you superior linguistic and communication skills, and you’re more valuable to employers with a second language on your CV (and, as a pretty mainstream European language, it’s still a useful one). It’s a degree that will open up plenty of options for you, such as translation and interpretation work, teaching English as a Foreign Language in Italy, or working in the tourism sector.

6. Geography

Geography is often seen – unfairly – as a ‘soft option’, particularly at Oxford and Cambridge. Those not in the know tease geographers by saying that all they do is colour in maps, but of course there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s a reputation that seems to be based on the fact that (at A-level at least), many of the topics covered in Geography are relatively easy to understand and learn – and there are a fair few field trips abroad (“holidays”, as the critics call them) included too. As with many subjects, Geography gets much harder at degree level, and some topics are particularly challenging, such as climate change and meteorology. In fact, the Russell Group’s Informed Choices booklet lists A-level Geography as a “facilitating subject” – one that gives you the most options for choosing a degree – which indicates that the subject is more respected than it’s given credit for.

7. Theology

Image shows Stanford University's church.
You don’t have to be religious to study Theology.

With religion at the root of many modern conflicts and tensions, there’s a lot to be said for gaining a deeper understanding of different faiths and how religious beliefs motivate people. Theology and overlapping subjects such as Religious Studies give you that understanding, and, contrary to popular perception, you don’t have to be religious to get a lot out of studying this subject. A knowledge of theology can come in very useful in any walk of life, particularly areas in which multiculturalism exists, as you will be better equipped to see the world from other perspectives. What’s more, many Theology degrees give you the option to study ancient languages such as Hebrew, which means that you come away with superior linguistic skills into the bargain. Because it involves looking at sources in the context of both historic and contemporary issues, theology also teaches the same sort of skills as history – a critical approach to sources, for example.

8. International Relations

International Relations is a comparatively young subject, having only been studied in a formal academic way since 1919. For this reason, it’s not viewed in the same light as a traditional subject such as Classics. The subject is all about foreign policy and the relationships between countries, and as such, it provides a good grounding for those who want a career as a politician or diplomat, or for those keen to get into jobs with international NGOs. It’s a great way to become more informed about current affairs and the issues affecting the world today (and is therefore, arguably, more useful than History, which looks at the past without really thinking much about the present). Many universities offer International Relations in conjunction with Politics, though some run it as a standalone course option, such as this one at LSE.

9. Philosophy (Sheffield)

Image shows the University of Sheffield at sunset.
Sheffield also offers philosophy as a joint honours course with a variety of options, including history, languages and physics.

Philosophy is perhaps seen as a little pretentious and irrelevant to everyday life, but, as anyone who’s ever read modern-day philosopher Alain de Botton will know, this isn’t the case. Philosophy has many practical applications and can help you think about your responses to ethical dilemmas, but it’s a subject that also teaches transferrable skills, such as an analytical approach. We’ve chosen Sheffield’s Philosophy course in particular to mention here for two reasons. Firstly, did you know that Sheffield University is more highly ranked in the world university league tables than the more famous St Andrews University? And secondly, the Sheffield Philosophy course is a good example of how Philosophy can be relevant to the everyday, as it runs a programme called “Philosophy in the City”, in which students take philosophy into local schools. This experience would be great for your CV, and is particularly suited to those who aim to pursue a career in teaching.

10. Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic (Cambridge)

The immediate reaction of most people to a course with a title like “Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic” is: “What’s the point?” or “What’s that useful for?” In fact, obscure though it may sound, this challenging degree will teach you the same skills you’d pick up from a more mainstream degree such as modern languages, English Literature or History. You’ll get to study some fascinating topics, too. You’ll cover things like the escapades of the Vikings and the Old English epic poem Beowulf – which provided the inspiration for the Riders of Rohan in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – and you’ll get to pore over very old documents, if you choose to study the Paleography module (the study of manuscripts and handwriting). According to the university website, there were just two applications per place last year – so your chances of securing a place are much higher than for many other courses at Cambridge, which often have at least four applications per place. It’s a tiny intake, too – just 30 per year – which means that you’ll know everyone in your year group (great for sharing notes).

11. Classical Archaeology and Ancient History (Oxford)

Image shows statues in the Ashmolean museum.
Oxford archaeologists will get to explore the Ashmolean.

Finally, I have to put in a good word for the degree I did. Though I don’t think any degree at Oxford could really be described as “underrated”, this is certainly one of the less well-known Oxford degrees – particularly when compared with the famous Classics course. Classical Archaeology and Ancient History – or CAAH, as it’s known – is a great choice for those who aren’t keen on learning Latin or Greek; although the language option is there, it’s not compulsory. It makes sense to study the ancient world by looking at history and archaeology alongside each other, and it also means that as well as all the books you have to read, you get to go out into “the field”, which makes for an altogether more interesting university experience. Fascinating museums and site visits are all part and parcel, though you’ll have to do most of these in your holidays (apart from the Ashmolean Museum, which is right in the centre of Oxford). My dissertation was about social life on Hadrian’s Wall, so I spent a few days during one of my summers visiting various Roman forts along the wall. A compulsory element of the course is at least two weeks on an archaeological dig or doing a museum internship. I chose to spend four weeks on a dig in Greece, which, as well as teaching me lots about archaeological methods, also gave me an unforgettable experience and lifelong friends.
So, when you’re choosing your degree course and university, think outside the box. Just because the more obscure courses or less famous universities aren’t as hyped, they still have much to offer and can provide you with equally good career prospects.

Image credits: banner; UCL; Bath; Sicily; church; Sheffield; Ashmolean