What are the best universities in the UK? If you're a US or other international student thinking of attending college in the UK, then it'll help you immensely in your search to have an idea of what the best universities in the UK are based on reputation, selectivity, and student satisfaction.
We'll go over the six biggest potential benefits for US students studying in the UK and then provide you with a list of the 13 best universities in the UK. After, we'll look at a quick comparison of the best colleges in UK and the best US schools before giving you some critical tips for finding the best UK institution for you.
6 Potential Benefits for US College Students in the UK
If you're a US or other international student thinking of attending a university in the UK, you might be wondering if there are any advantages to doing so. Here, we go over the six biggest potential benefits of going to school in the UK.
#1: You Could Save Money
Most of us—whether you're from the US or not—are aware of just how expensive colleges in the US can be.
US News reported that the average cost of tuition for private US universities during the 2020-21 school year was $35,087. This cost was markedly lower for in-state public universities: $9,687.
So, how much does it cost to study in the UK if you're an international student?
According to the Reddin Survey (via Top Universities), international undergraduate students at UK universities can expect to pay anywhere from £10,000 (~US$12,000) to £38,000 (~US$46,000) a year. (For UK and EU students, costs are typically much cheaper. Schools in England, for example, have a max tuition rate of £9,250 (~US$11,000) per year for UK/EU "home" students.)
What this means is that if you're a US student, you will likely save the most money by simply attending an in-state public university.
That being said, if you're really set on going to the UK for school, depending on the institution and program you choose, you could end up paying much less than you would for a degree from a private US university.
In general, programs in the humanities and social sciences in the UK tend to cost less than those with clinical or laboratory components.
Additionally, UK undergraduate programs usually last just three years instead of four as they do in the US (see #2 below for more details on this). This means you could save an entire year's worth of tuition and living expenses by going to school in the UK, potentially making it even cheaper than attending a public in-state school for four years!
Remember that no matter how much you have to pay in tuition, there will be other expenses to think about as well, such as housing, food, and transportation. If you're looking at universities in large, expensive cities, such as London, you will definitely want to consider how much it'll cost you to live there!
#2: You Get to Spend Less Time in School
As mentioned, another potential benefit for US and international students at UK universities is that you'll likely be in school a far shorter time than you would had you attended school in the US.
Undergraduate programs in the US typically last four years, but in the UK they're just three years (except for Scotland, which has four-year programs). As for master's programs, these are normally around two years in the US but just one year in the UK.
A shorter time in school means you'll save a whole year's worth of tuition and fees, meals, housing, transportation, travel, and so on.
The only downfall is that you might not like missing out on an entire year of the college experience—but this really comes down to your preferences. Indeed, this is one reason so many UK students go on to take a gap year right after graduating from a university!
#3: You Can Experience Different Cultures
Not only will you get to live in a new country that's notably different from the US (it really is, even though both places speak the same language!), you'll also get a chance to meet lots of students and staff from a variety of backgrounds and regions.
The top UK universities are known for being globally driven, especially in terms of student diversity. According to Studying-in-UK.org, more than 480,000 international students were studying in the UK during the 2018-19 school year.
In addition, being in the UK means you'll be geographically closer to tons of countries. If this type of environment sounds appealing, then a UK university might be a great fit for you.
#4: You Get to Study What You Want Right Away
In contrast to US universities, which typically require undergrads to take a broad array of general education classes before they can really begin to zero in on their chosen majors, UK universities require all students to choose and commit to a major during the application process.
In other words, when you're applying to a UK university, you're really applying for a specific major or program, rather than the university as a whole (as we do in the US). This allows you to narrow your academic focus and the courses you take as early as your first year of study.
If you know exactly what you want to study right away and don't want to deal with pesky general education requirements, a UK university would work well for you.
If, however, you're still undecided about what you want to study or would like the opportunity to explore courses outside your major, consider again whether a UK university is a wise choice.
#5: The Grading System Is Different
If you just hate the American-style GPA system and how many tests and mid-terms you must take, then you might prefer the grading system used by UK universities.
Pass or Fail?
First Class Honours
Upper-Second Class Honours
Lower-Second Class Honours
Third Class Honours
While an American student might see a 65% on an assignment and assume they've totally failed it, this would actually be a passing mark in the UK—and not just any passing mark, but a "very good" one, too!
Some students might prefer this grading system and find that it puts less pressure on them than does trying to maintain a certain GPA in the US. Nevertheless, there are still those honors rankings to strive for, which aren't all that different from GPA levels when you really think about it.
Another big difference between the US and UK grading systems (that may or may not benefit you) is that UK universities normally give out fewer exams and assignments than US universities do. So rather than being graded on tons of small assignments, tests, and quizzes, you'll be graded on just a few assignments and most likely a single test, paper, or project.
If you don't like the idea of doing lots of busywork and getting graded on everything you do, then a UK university might work out better for you in the long run.
#6: The UK Could Have Your Dream Program
This last benefit is cheesy, I know, but think about it: if the academic program you truly want is only available in the UK (or the best one is in the UK), then definitely apply to it!
Best Universities in UK: Ranking Methodology
To come up with our UK university ranking list below, we looked primarily at other reputable UK university ranking lists and important factors, such as student satisfaction, that can have a large effect on the quality of the institution as a whole.
We then assigned point values to each of these criteria. The more points a UK university earned, the higher it ranked on our list.
Here's the exact criteria we used:
- US News Ranking: The higher a university ranked on the 2020 US News list of the best global universities in the UK, the more points it earned
- Times Higher Education Ranking: Once again, the higher an institution ranked on the 2021 THE list of the best universities in the UK, the more points it earned
- Center for World University Rankings: UK universities with higher domestic spots on the 2020-21 list of the best schools in the world earned more points
- The Guardian Ranking: Universities in the UK with higher rankings on the 2020 list by The Guardian earned more points than those with lower rankings
- The Complete University Guide Ranking: Universities with higher overall scores on the 2021 University League Tables earned more points
- Selectivity: Schools with lower acceptance rates (normally <40%) earned more points than those with higher acceptance rates; the majority of the rates we used came from this 2016 article in The Telegraph
- Student Satisfaction: The higher a UK university ranked in student satisfaction, the more points it earned; student satisfaction percentages come from the National Student Survey
Finally, because many of you readers are likely US students, we've included with each university description a little information on the number of international students.
Top 13 Universities in the UK, Ranked
Now that we've had a chance to go over our ranking methodology for our UK university ranking list, let's take a look at what we determined to be the 13 best universities in the UK.
Newnham College for women at the University of Cambridge
#1: University of Cambridge — Cambridge, England
England's second-oldest university and the top-ranked UK university by the CWUR, The Guardian, and the Complete University Guide, the University of Cambridge is a world-renowned public institution that's home to nearly 19,000 students.
Cambridge has six schools (Arts and Humanities, Biological Sciences, Clinical Medicine, Technology, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Physical Sciences), more than 100 libraries, and 31 residential colleges, including three women-only colleges.
The school is one of the most selective universities in the UK, with a current acceptance rate of just 34%. Student satisfaction is also especially high here at 90%, per the National Student Survey in 2016 (Cambridge has not participated in the survey since).
Around 20% of the student body is international students from outside the EU.
#2: University of Oxford — Oxford, England
Coming in at #2 on our list is the world-famous University of Oxford, which is the oldest English-speaking university in the world and currently ranked #1 in the UK by both US News and Times Higher Education. Oxford is known for having high student satisfaction and the lowest acceptance rate among top UK schools at less than 20%.
Approximately 24,000 students attend Oxford, including more than 10,000 international students from over 150 countries and regions. The institution has four academic divisions (Social Sciences; Humanities; Mathematical, Physical, and Life Sciences; and Medical Sciences), more than 350 graduate programs, and 38 colleges.
Oxford was recently ranked the most international university in the UK; it's also home to the Oxford University Press, the largest university press in the world.
#3: Imperial College London — London, England
The only UK university to focus exclusively on science, medicine, engineering, and business, and one of the best universities in London, Imperial College London is ranked #3 and #4 by US News, Times Higher Education, and the CWUR.
The institution has many campuses throughout London and four academic divisions: Engineering, Medicine, Business, and Natural Sciences. Over 16,000 students attend Imperial College London, including approximately 9,000 international students from more than 125 countries.
Imperial College London is known for its high-quality research and innovation. In fact, it's got the biggest concentration of high-impact research of any major university in the UK. It's also known for helping to advance women's academic careers in STEM and medicine.
#4: UCL (University College London) — London, England
Officially branded as UCL, University College London is a particularly large university in the UK, with over 31,000 students, including nearly 16,000 international students from 150 countries.
UCL is home to 11 academic divisions, including arts and humanities, education, medical sciences, engineering, and social and historical sciences. The school's main multidisciplinary research areas are personalized medicine, populations and lifelong health, neuroscience, and the environment.
UCL is affiliated with many medical centers and hospitals, such as the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital in London. It's primarily known for its breakthrough research in medicine and science. For example, UCL researchers worked with the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration to release the world's first image of a black hole.
Wardlaw Wing of University Hall at the University of St. Andrews (Jim Bain/Wikimedia Commons)
#5: University of St. Andrews — St. Andrews, Scotland
The University of St. Andrews is not only the oldest institution in Scotland but also the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world. St. Andrews offers a highly intimate, globally minded atmosphere, with a total student population of just 9,000 (including 4,000 students from abroad).
The school has the highest student satisfaction of any UK university, with 94% of its students reporting that they're satisfied with their experiences here.
Students at St. Andrews can choose from more than 190 extracurriculars and dozens of programs—ranging from ancient history to sustainable development—across four faculties. The school also encourages students to engage in several unique traditions, such as the May Dip and the annual Raisin Monday foam fight.
#6 (Tie): Durham University — Durham, England
Home to more than 16,000 students—including 4,000 international students—Durham University is a top public research university that's also a member of the Russell Group of British research universities.
The institution offers more than 200 undergraduate courses and 100 graduate courses across 17 colleges and four faculties: Business, Arts and Humanities, Science, and Social Science and Health.
Student satisfaction is high at 85%, and Durham is known as a top university for employability.
#6 (Tie): King's College London — London, England
Ranked in the top 10 UK universities by US News, Times Higher Education, and the CWUR, King's College London is a premier research-led public university based in London and the fourth-oldest university in England.
The school is home to more than 31,000 students, with about 10,000 of them coming from abroad and representing over 150 countries. There are nine faculties in fields such as arts and humanities, social science and public policy, nursing, dentistry, and law.
King's is famous for its cutting-edge research and has distinguished reputations in the fields of law, international affairs, and medicine. It's also one of the founding members of the Francis Crick Institute, which is focused on biomedical discoveries.
#6 (Tie): London School of Economics and Political Science — London, England
The London School of Economics and Political Science is an extremely selective school with only a 22.5% admission rate and a total enrollment of 12,000 students, the majority of whom are from a mix of more than 148 countries.
LSE is home to 23 academic departments, 16 research journals, and over 200 student-run societies and clubs.
The university has a proven track record of successfully preparing students for careers in banking and finance, consultancy, research and education, and politics/government. According to LSE, 91% of its graduates are employed or in school within six months of graduating.
New College at the University of Edinburgh (Ozzy Delaney/Flickr)
#6 (Tie): University of Edinburgh — Edinburgh, Scotland
Located in Scotland's historical capital, the University of Edinburgh is composed of three distinct colleges: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; Medicine and Veterinary Medicine; and Science and Engineering. Currently, 21 schools are housed at these three colleges, with specializations in fields such as history, law, physics, literature, and math.
More than 40,000 students are enrolled at Edinburgh, with the majority studying at the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Non-British and non-EU students make up an estimated 34% of the student population.
The university is involved with many local festivals in Edinburgh and even has its own Festivals Office. Another unique trait of the school is its offering of Gaelic-language classes for students, including a free six-week "taster" course.
#10: University of Manchester — Manchester, England
A large public research university and the biggest single-site institution in the UK, the University of Manchester has a total enrollment of 40,000 students, with 11,000 international students, and is known for its sprawling 270-hectare campus.
The school's got 1,000+ degree programs across three faculties: Humanities; Biology, Medicine and Health; and Science and Engineering. It also has more than 400 student societies and clubs.
Student satisfaction is a solid 83%, and 94% of students find employment or continue their studies shortly after leaving. Famous alumni include actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Parineeti Chopra.
#11 (Tie): Lancaster University — Lancaster, England
Based in Lancashire, Lancaster University is currently ranked #7 for top UK universities by The Guardian and the Complete University Guide.
Around 12,000 students are enrolled here, including 4,560 students from more than 140 countries. Lancaster is composed of four faculties: Arts and Social Sciences, Science and Technology, Health and Medicine, and Management.
Student satisfaction is high at 88%, most likely due in part to the university's large emphasis on student experience and employability.
Lancaster has research partnerships with over 60 countries all around the world and is known for its unique collegiate system and ongoing commitment to interdisciplinary research.
#11 (Tie): Loughborough University — Loughborough, England
Named the 2019 University of the Year by both The Times and The Sunday Times University Guide, Loughborough University is a premier institution that's currently home to about 18,000 students, including more than 3,000 international students.
The university has a high 88% student satisfaction rate as well as 22 schools and departments with focuses ranging from design and English to physics and geography. In 2017, 91% of recent graduates were employed or continuing their studies.
Benefits of attending Loughborough include access to a large, beautiful campus; the opportunity to do a placement year and get hands-on work experience; and the option to enroll in language classes through the school's Language Centre.
Wills Memorial Library at the University of Bristol (millakon/Flickr)
#13: University of Bristol — Bristol, England
Located in South West England, the University of Bristol has 20,000 students, with about 5,000 coming from abroad. The school was ranked in the top 10 best UK universities by US News, Times Higher Education, and the CWUR.
There are six faculties available here: Arts, Engineering, Health Sciences, Science, Life Sciences, and Social Sciences and Law. Each faculty is made up of different schools and research centers, such as the Bristol Dental School in the Health Sciences faculty and the School of Modern Languages in the Arts faculty.
Bristol is proud of its commitment to sustainability and is known for its cutting-edge research in areas such as nanotechnology and human rights.
Best Universities in UK vs Best Universities in USA
We've seen what the best universities in the UK are—but how do these top schools compare with the best universities in the US?
The following chart gives the top 10 UK universities and top 10 US universities per their 2020-21 global rankings in the CWUR.
|Domestic Ranking||Global Ranking|
|University of Pennsylvania||6||8|
|University of Chicago||7||9|
|University of California, Berkeley||10||12|
|University of Cambridge||1||4|
|University of Oxford||2||5|
|University College London||3||19|
|Imperial College London||4||30|
|University of Edinburgh||5||44|
|King's College London||6||45|
|University of Manchester||7||57|
|University of Birmingham||8||78|
|University of Bristol||9||90|
|University of Leeds||10||100|
What does this chart mean? Let's take a moment to break it down.
You might have noticed right away in these uni rankings that the top 10 US universities ranked much higher globally than did the top 10 UK universities. Specifically, the top US universities ranked within the top 12 spots globally, while the 10 best universities in the UK ranked within the top 100 spots globally.
The only UK universities that are on par with the top US schools are Cambridge and Oxford, which placed 4th and 5th globally, respectively. This means that, generally (and based only on this specific ranking list), the best universities in the US are better than the best universities in the UK.
Of course, this conclusion is purely based on one ranking list, so don't take it to heart. All school ranking lists differ somewhat—and no list will ever be able to tell you which college will ultimately be the best fit for you!
So if the UK university you absolutely love isn't ranked that high, either on our list or any other list, try not to let it influence your college decision too much. What matters most is whether you'll be happy at the school you've chosen and are able to get the education and experience you desire.
Should You Attend a UK University? 6 Questions to Consider
If you're a US or other international student who is strongly considering attending one of the best universities in the UK (or any other UK institution), then be sure to think about the six following questions before you make your college decision.
#1: What Kind of Environment Do You Want?
Don't underestimate how important location (and campus environment) will be in your college decision-making process—regardless of whether you plan to go to school in the UK, the US, or another country altogether.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Would I prefer an urban, suburban, or rural area for school?
- Do I want a larger, more sprawling campus? Or a smaller, more intimate campus?
- How expensive will it be to live in the area where I want to go to school? (see #2 below)
For instance, if you're not a huge fan of city living, then a university such as UCL, which is based in London, probably wouldn't be an ideal fit for you.
Ultimately, the best way to figure out whether you like a certain campus or area is to see it in person.
As we all know, though, visiting schools in the UK can obviously get expensive if you're flying all the way from the US. If you can't afford to fly out, do as much research as you can on the campus and the area around the school to see if you can imagine yourself succeeding there.
#2: How Much Does the Program Cost?
Another big factor for most students looking to study in the UK is cost.
While tuition for universities in the UK is not typically as cheap as it is in other European countries (I'm looking at you, Germany, with your free tuition!), it'll still generally be cheaper than tuition is for private universities in the US.
If you're looking to save as much money as possible, then your best bet will be to either attend an in-state public university, or apply for (and win!) scholarships from a UK university.
Many UK universities give out scholarships to international students, so make sure to spend time digging through your universities' official websites for any info on what kind of aid you might be eligible for.
#3: How Big or Small Is the School?
Universities in the UK can vary a lot in size in terms of student enrollment, with some schools having 30,000+ students and others having far fewer at just around 10,000 students.
The University of Manchester, for example, is one of the largest top universities in the UK with over 40,000 students, while the London School of Economics has only 12,000 students. Some prefer the intimacy of smaller schools, but others look forward to the hustle and bustle of large universities.
Make sure to think deeply about what size you'd like better for three years!
#4: Does It Have the Major You Want?
Another crucial factor to consider is whether the UK universities you're thinking of attending offer the major or program you want to do.
You should figure this out early on—well before you apply—since you'll be applying for admission to a specific academic program and not the university as a whole. (Remember that this is a big difference between UK and US universities!)
Do your research on any schools you're looking at to confirm that they do in fact have the specific program you want to enroll in.
Want to study chemistry? Then make sure the UK university you're considering has a chemistry major!
#5: What Kinds of Extracurriculars Does It Have?
Whether you're the social, sporty, or activist type, you'll likely want a university that offers a decent array of extracurricular activities, including student-run clubs and sports teams. Seeing the various kinds of extracurriculars a university has can help you envision how you might fit in there.
Typically, larger UK universities will offer more extracurriculars, since they'll have to meet the diverse needs of their bigger student bodies. So if extracurriculars are important to you, you might want to pay a little more attention to larger UK universities than smaller ones when applying.
That said, even smaller universities can have unique traditions and clubs, so definitely don't count any out just because of their less impressive enrollment numbers!
#6: Does It Offer Any Professional/Research Opportunities?
Finally, you'll want to look at whether the UK universities you're considering offer any opportunities for getting work or research experience. These professional opportunities could come in the form of internships, research projects, community service/volunteer options, and so on.
If research is particularly important to you and your major, look specifically for "research-intensive" universities. Many research-intensive schools in the UK are part of the Russell Group, so this might be a good place to start your college search.
Conclusion: The Best Universities in UK
Studying in the UK can be a great choice for many US and other international students.
There are tons of potential benefits for those hoping to study in the UK, including cheaper tuition, a shorter time frame, a different grading system, and the opportunity to experience many unique cultures all at once.
But what exactly are the best universities in the UK? The best universities in England?
To answer these questions, we looked at online UK university ranking lists, acceptance rates, and student satisfaction rates. We then came up with this list of the 13 best universities in the UK:
- 1. University of Cambridge
- 2. University of Oxford
- 3. Imperial College London
- 4. UCL (University College London)
- 5. University of St. Andrews
- 6. (tie) Durham University
- 6. (tie) King's College London
- 6. (tie) London School of Economics and Political Science
- 6. (tie) University of Edinburgh
- 10. University of Manchester
- 11. (tie) Lancaster University
- 11. (tie) Loughborough University
- 13. University of Bristol
If we compare the global rankings of the top UK universities with those for the top US universities, we find that US universities generally outrank their UK counterparts (Oxford and Cambridge are the only exceptions).
What's truly important, however, isn't a university's ranking but whether it's the right university for you personally.
To find out whether a UK university might be a good fit for you, ask yourself these questions:
- What kind of environment do you want?
- How much does the program cost?
- How big or small is the school?
- Does it have the major you want?
- What kinds of extracurriculars does it have?
- Does it offer any professional/research opportunities?
Should you choose to apply to a university in the UK, I wish you the best of luck!
Thinking of applying to college in Canada? Then check out our expert guide to learn what the best universities in Canada are and what types of benefits they offer US students.
Still struggling to figure out which colleges you should apply to? Let our step-by-step article lend you a much-needed hand and teach you how to come up with your own college list!
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.