11 Unique Characteristics of Certain Universities

The UK is home to many of the world’s top universities, but it’s not just their academic credentials that set them apart.

From quirky degree courses to unbeatable facilities, many of the UK’s universities can boast of unique things that no other university can lay claim to. Sometimes it’s the things that make a university stand out from the crowd that attract students to come and study there, and it’s also these things that make current students feel proud to show off about what makes their university better than any other. This article looks at some of the most impressive and unusual distinguishing characteristics of a selection of UK universities, in no particular order; it should give you plenty of inspiration if you’re in the process of choosing universities to apply to this year.

1. Manchester University – Jodrell Bank Observatory

How many universities can claim to have their very own observatory – let alone a UK university featuring the third largest steerable radio telescope in the world? That’s a claim that can be made only by the University of Manchester, which boasts among its facilities the Jodrell Bank Observatory, home to the iconic Lovell Telescope as well as three others. It’s part of the university’s Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, and it makes Manchester a highly desirable university for aspiring astronomers and astrophysicists. As well as being used to track space probes and satellites, the Lovell Telescope is used for scientific research, including the observation of the cosmos (helping scientists learn more about phenomena such as pulsars and quasars), and the measuring of distances using radar. It must be a huge source of inspiration for current students to have cutting edge research like this taking place right on their doorstep.

2. Warwick University – has its own Arts Centre

Many universities host student performances of theatre, music and comedy, but few go to the lengths Warwick University went to in building its very own Arts Centre. It’s the largest of its kind in the UK outside London, and it’s situated on the university’s main campus. This superb venue attracts performers and audiences from far and wide, not just from within its student population. The Warwick Arts Centre has five main auditoria and visual art spaces, and it’s a haven for visual and performing arts of all kinds: theatre, film, music of all genres, comedy, dance, circus, visual arts, literature readings and talks. It’s hard to imagine a better venue for those embarking on an arts degree, though there’s something in the regular programme of events to suit every taste. For those with an interest in the sciences, the Centre even hosts its own version of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, known as the Warwick Christmas Lectures, which are run in conjunction with the university’s Faculty of Science. Most of the Centre’s events are held during term time, including a series of lunchtime concerts, but films are shown throughout the year. It’s an exceptional venue for students and the surrounding community alike, and it’s a good reason for making Warwick one of the universities you apply to this year.

3. Durham University – has its own castle

If you’ve ever fancied going to university in a castle (listen up, Harry Potter fans), Durham University would be right up your street. Durham Castle – a UNESCO World Heritage Site in conjunction with Durham Cathedral – is home to one of Durham University’s colleges, University College. This Norman castle has been used in its entirety by the university since the 1840s, and it’s still home to over a hundred students. It has a Harry Potter-esque dining hall called Bishop Bek’s Great Hall, while the undercroft, or vaulted cellar, serves as the JCR. The castle also has two chapels, both of which are in regular use by the university. It’s an atmospheric alternative to Oxford and Cambridge, and it’s no surprise that it’s frequently a back-up choice on the UCAS forms of top students. It’s an imposing landmark on the city’s skyline, perched high on a hill above the River Wear, and it’s even open to the general public, albeit only through guided tours.

4. Cambridge University – unrivalled punting opportunities

As well as being home to numerous picturesque colleges, Cambridge University is also distinguished by its exceptional punting opportunities. (In case you haven’t heard of it, punting is a form of boating that uses a flat-bottomed boat, which you push through the water using a long pole that reaches to the riverbed – a technique that’s rather like the famous Venetian gondolas.) Cambridge isn’t the only university you can punt at – but it’s certainly the best. It’s the only place where you can punt at night, and the river takes you through the gardens of some of the city’s most beautiful colleges – a wonderful sight, particularly when illuminated at night. What’s more, at Cambridge, you can punt to nearby Grantchester, the setting for one of the war poet Rupert Brooke’s most famous poems (you can see the church clock mentioned in the lines, “Stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?”). Grantchester has an orchard, once frequented by Virginia Woolf and her set, in which you can have afternoon tea with your friends and visit a little museum dedicated to Rupert Brooke. Among the other things Cambridge University has that other universities don’t have is the superb Fitzwilliam Museum, which houses a priceless collection of art and antiquities.

5. Portsmouth University – the only UK university on an island

Situated on Portsea Island, Portsmouth is the UK’s only island city – and that makes its university the only UK university on an island. It may be so close to the mainland that you barely notice that it’s an island, but the fact still stands. Portsmouth is a great naval centre with a wealth of seafaring history to be felt by anyone visiting or studying there. Nowhere is its past more apparent than in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, home to Lord Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, and several other important ships. Those with nautical leanings will enjoy studying in such environs, despite the relatively unappealing appearance of the university buildings themselves.

6. Nottingham University and UCL – BA Viking Studies

Those with more than a passing interest in the Vikings will be interested in an unusual undergraduate degree course available at just two top UK universities: BA Viking Studies. Offered as a freestanding subject at Nottingham University and University College London (UCL) only, this is a degree you can’t get from just anywhere. Helping you to understand the intriguing Vikings via literature, history, archaeology and language, this degree teaches a range of disciplines and skills, so it’s more useful than you might think. The four-year UCL course even gives you the opportunity to reach near-fluency in a Scandinavian language alongside Old Norse, as well as allowing you to spend a year abroad in Scandinavia. If you’re looking for a degree with a difference, and you’re a lover of all things Scandinavian, this could be the degree for you.

7. Cranfield University – has its own airport

Not many universities can claim to have their own operational airport – just one, in fact. Cranfield University is home to Cranfield Airport, situated adjacent to its campus, where the university keeps its own aircraft for training students and for conducting research in aerospace engineering and suchlike. It’s not just used for university purposes, though. Private pilots can train at Cranfield, and both private pilots and business jets can fly in. It’s also the base of the Met Office’s Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements, which houses an aircraft used to conduct various kinds of research such as cloud studies and measuring radioactive transfer. The airport is even marketed as an alternative to London for those travelling by business jet – not bad for a university-owned facility.

8. SOAS – BA Indonesian

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London is, to quote its own website, “the only university in the UK to offer a comprehensive range of courses in the language, literatures and cultures of Indonesia”. There’s a four-year course option that involves a year in Indonesia for those with a yen to travel, and you’ll have the opportunity to study many aspects of Indonesian culture and language in the process. It’s a bit different from your average BA French, and it’s a much bigger challenge, as it involves getting to grips with Jawi script.

Oxford University

There are quite a few distinguishing features of Oxford University, so it gets a section of its own. Apart from its quirky traditions and stunning architecture, here are a few of the other things that set Oxford University apart from the rest.

9. It has the Hogwarts dining hall

We’ve all read the Harry Potter books and watched the movies they spawned, but for most people the dream of living at Hogwarts is just that – a dream. But Oxford University lets you come slightly closer to making that dream a reality. It was used extensively in the filming of the Harry Potter series, and one of its many majestic dining halls has stood in for the Great Hall at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In particular, Christ Church’s dining hall was felt to offer all the magic of the fictional one – minus the enchanted ceiling – meaning that students at Christ Church get to eat in the closest possible environs to Hogwarts. Oxford also has several other Harry Potter filming locations, including New College’s cloisters, and the Bodleian Library’s Divinity School, which was the Hogwarts infirmary. The Bodleian’s Duke Humfrey’s Library stood in for the Hogwarts library, too.

10. It has the Ashmolean Museum… and the Natural History Museum, and the Pitt Rivers Museum

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is part of the University, and it’s the world’s first university museum. It’s named after Elias Ashmole, whose collection of curiosities formed the museum’s first collection when it opened in 1683, and it’s now home to an extensive collection of Egyptian, Roman and Greek objects, a large collection of European and Oriental art, and much more. And the Ashmolean Museum isn’t the only unique museum Oxford University can lay claim to. Within another of its museums – the Natural History Museum, which is used for some university lectures – is the Pitt Rivers Museum, a one-of-a-kind collection housing unusual artefacts amassed by a Victorian army officer named Augustus Pitt Rivers. Among the museum’s many incredible archaeological and anthropological objects are the famous shrunken heads, which come all the way from the Upper Amazon.

11. The Bodleian Library

Oxford’s Bodleian Library – popularly known as “The Bod” – isn’t just notable for its appearances in the Harry Potter films. It’s the second largest library in the UK, and one of the world’s oldest. As a legal deposit library, it automatically receives a copy of every book published in the UK, and it’s said that its holdings stretch under vast swathes of Oxford on underground shelves. You can’t withdraw books from the Bodleian – you have to read or refer to them on site – and you have to swear when you join the university that you won’t set fire to any of them. Where else but Oxford would students be required to do a thing like that? These are some of the most notable distinguishing characteristics of a mere handful of the UK’s many universities.

Of course, any student will tell you that their university is the best, and will give you a dozen justifications in support of their claim. But the universities on this list have perhaps more reason than most to be worthy of attention. Others may be the best at a particular subject, or have more mundane claims over things like the best nightlife or the best eco credentials. But for those seeking a more unusual university experience, the places covered in this list should provide some food for thought.

If you’d like to see more of what Oxford University has to offer, why not join us this summer at our Oxford Summer School?