Spotlight on 18 British Universities and Their Pros and Cons

by Rachel McCombie

Image shows Aberdeen University Library. The University of Aberdeen’s library

As any A-level student knows, drawing up a final selection of universities to apply to can be an agonising process.

If your choices are between similar universities and you’re finding it hard to figure out which is the right one to go for, this article is for you. Rather than looking at universities individually, we thought we’d put a different twist on this topic and look at pairs of universities that are similarly ranked or geographically fairly close to each other. We’re going to sit on the fence and give you a fair assessment of each, so that you can make your own mind up. This approach reflects the dilemmas that many students get into when they’re trying to narrow down their list of university options, and we hope it will prove useful to you if you’re in a quandary over which to choose out of the following pairs of universities…

1. Oxford or Cambridge?

Image shows Magdalen College, Oxford.
Madgalen College, Oxford, seen across the New Building
lawns towards the Great Tower.

They’re the pinnacle of the UK education system, and among the finest universities the world has to offer. So how on earth does one choose between these two scholarly giants? Both are supremely beautiful and home to some of the greatest minds in the whole of academia, and both accept only the brightest students. You can even enjoy punting at both. They’re so closely matched that you are actually only allowed to apply for one or the other, so if you’re aiming high, you’ll definitely have to make the tricky decision of which to go for. Overall, Cambridge is currently ranked marginally higher than Oxford in the league tables (not that they can be taken as gospel), although they switch places from one year to the next. Traditionally, Oxford is seen as stronger on the arts subjects and Cambridge as being better for sciences. Cambridge is a smaller town and even more dominated by its university than Oxford; Oxford has a better ‘town and gown’ balance and nightlife for those who might feel overwhelmed by the academic atmosphere. At the end of the day, both are superior institutions and will give you an equally valuable degree, so your decision will probably boil down to which of the two cities you prefer.

2. Manchester or Leeds?

Image shows Leeds University Business School.
The Leeds University Business School building.

With Leeds at 23 on the Complete University Guide’s league table and Manchester at 28, they’re similarly ranked, but Leeds has the slight edge – even though anecdotally many people consider Manchester to have the better reputation of the two. However, both are ‘red brick’ universities and are likely to be viewed on a par with each other by employers. Whether you’ll prefer Manchester or Leeds depends on the sort of university experience you’re after. Leeds is more campus-based, and therefore smaller and perhaps more comfortable, while Manchester is bigger and more city-based. Manchester is said to have the better nightlife, but Leeds Student Union is reportedly much more active and lively than Manchester’s, with more shops, bars and restaurants. If you’re after nightlife, it would be hard to better Manchester, which has nearly 250 pubs; but Leeds is also known for being a good place to party.

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3. LSE or Imperial?

Image shows part of the London School of Economics, where two buildings are linked by an overhead walkway.
The main entrance of the London School of Economics.

High up in the top 10 universities in the UK league tables you’ll find the London School of Economics and Imperial College, London. Both are, as their names suggest, based in London, which means a high cost of living (but you’re compensated with higher student loan allowances). LSE is seen as particularly strong for those who want to enter the finance sector – in fact, it’s seen as one of the best places you can go if you want a career in this sector. Imperial is more sciency, and this finance/science divide is reflected in the sort of events and recruitment drives to which you’ll be exposed as an undergraduate. Your own career aims will therefore dictate which is better suited to you. Imperial is arguably better for maths, as it offers all branches of maths, whereas LSE doesn’t. It’s also worth noting that graduates of the London School of Economics enjoy the highest starting salaries of any UK university, the median graduate salary being £27,388.

4. Durham or York?

Image shows the entrance of Durham Castle.
Durham Castle is the oldest inhabited university building
in the world.

Both Durham and York are attractive, historic northern cities, but the university experience offered by each of them differs. Durham has a reputation for being the university for “Oxbridge rejects”, since it also has a collegiate structure and is a popular insurance choice for those who haven’t made it into Oxford or Cambridge. That said, it’s certainly an excellent alternative. A quality of life survey last year found that students at Durham have the best quality of life of all UK universities, and it’s apparently the safest place in the country to go to university, too. Durham enjoys a graduate employment rate of 92%, and students say that they have a great social life (its close proximity to Newcastle, famous for its nightlife, is perhaps partly to do with this). What’s more, it’s known for being a particularly sporty university, which is great if you’re into that kind of thing. However, Durham also has some of the most expensive student housing in the country – despite the fact that York reportedly has nicer (en-suite) accommodation. York is campus-based, and as such, offers what some might describe as a more ‘modern’ university environment than Durham’s colleges (though the city of York itself is just as historic and interesting). It’s a little lower in the league tables (currently 12 to Durham’s 5), but not by enough to make any real difference to the quality of your education or the regard in which your degree will be held.

5. St Andrews or Edinburgh?

Image shows the ancient buildings of St Andrews University.
St Mary’s College at the University of St Andrews.

Two Scottish universities now – Scotland’s two best. St Andrews is mostly famous for its golf course and, latterly, for being the university at which Prince William met his future wife. It’s currently 4th in the league tables, while Edinburgh can currently be found at number 21; St Andrews has higher overall entrance requirements. Edinburgh is a significantly bigger place than St Andrews (which is just around the coastline north of Edinburgh, and a little wilder and more remote); similarly, Edinburgh University is significantly bigger than St Andrews. However, the student population at St Andrews will probably be more evident, because it’s a smaller town. If you want to feel part of a close-knit community, and regularly bump into people you know, St Andrews might have the edge for you; if you’d rather be a little more anonymous, Edinburgh would probably be better suited to you. St Andrews is said to be quieter than Edinburgh, with less going on (and apparently only one club); Edinburgh, of course, is a popular tourist destination, with its stunning castle and extinct volcano.

6. Lancaster or Loughborough?

Image shows the modern John Ruskin library at Lancaster University.
The John Ruskin Library at Lancaster University.

Loughborough and Lancaster universities are on a par with each other when it comes to the league tables, and they’re said to have equally good accommodation. Loughborough is known for being particularly strong on engineering and technology. Anecdotally, some say that Lancaster has the slightly better library, but the university is less aesthetically appealing, with lots of grey and concrete. Loughborough is reputedly a “party university”, and has a strong reputation for sporting prowess. What’s more, in the aforementioned quality of life survey, Loughborough was ranked second after Durham for having the highest quality of life in a UK university. Lancaster is quite a bit further north than Loughborough, meaning it’s quite out of the way and takes a lot longer to get to from London than Loughborough, which is just an hour and forty minutes away from London by train. What’s more, Lancaster, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding this year, is further from its town centre. Another difference between the two is that Loughborough has a big central student union, while Lancaster is divided into nine ‘colleges’, which are self-catered residences each with about 800-900 members. There are JCRs with bars at each college, but there’s no central one, which arguably dilutes the overall sense of a unified university community, but may give you a greater sense of community within your own college.

7. Bath or Warwick?

Image shows an angular, modern building at the University of Warwick.
The International Digital Library at the University
of Warwick.

Bath and Warwick universities are next to each other in the league tables, but Bath arguably has the edge in some respects. At 96%, degree satisfaction at Bath is the highest in the country – much higher than national average of 85%. It’s ranked highly for its sporting prowess (with excellent sports facilities), and its small, compact campus is on the outskirts of a beautiful, historic city, which is just a short bus ride away. If you’ve never visited Warwick, you’ll be disappointed to learn that Warwick University is located not in this picturesque old town, but in the rather less attractive mass of concrete, Coventry. In terms of where it’s located, then, Bath wins hands down. However, if you’d rather be part of a bigger university then Warwick might suit you better – and its student house prices are a bit lower than those of Bath. Warwick is perhaps also a better university than Bath for those who want to study arts and humanities subjects, with a multi-venue arts complex (the Warwick Arts Centre) on its main campus that’s the UK’s largest venue of this kind outside London. Bath, on the other hand, is particularly strong on science subjects such as engineering.

8. Nottingham or Sheffield?

Image shows an old red-brick building at the University of Sheffield.
The Sir Frederick Mappin Building at the University
of Sheffield.

Separated by an hour on the M1, Nottingham and Sheffield are next door neighbours in the league tables. They offer different university experiences, as Nottingham is a campus university while Sheffield is city-based. In the quality of life survey we mentioned earlier, students in Sheffield reported one of the highest rates of satisfaction with their social lives, though some say that Sheffield as a city isn’t that inspiring. A big point in its favour, though, is that it has the stunning Peak District right on its doorstep. Nottingham is known for having a high crime rate in some areas, which is perhaps a reason why its housing costs slightly less than that of Sheffield. Nottingham is the bigger university of the two, to the tune of 10,000 extra students. Interestingly, Nottingham graduates have higher average salaries (£21,037) than those of Sheffield graduates (£18,910) – despite average entry requirements being slightly lower for Nottingham than Sheffield.

9. Birmingham and Bristol

Image shows the Bristol skyline, with a tower and red-brick buildings in the foreground.
The city of Bristol, with university buildings in the
foreground.

Birmingham and Bristol universities have similar academic reputations (both very strong), but they’re very different in terms of the cities in which they’re located. Birmingham is a large commercial centre with a big multicultural population, while Bristol is a leafier place, with more green spaces, and some attractive architecture (most famously the Clifton Suspension Bridge). Birmingham is considerably cheaper than Bristol; Bristol, in some areas at least, is almost as expensive as London. Birmingham is a campus-based university, while Bristol isn’t – although Bristol’s buildings are mainly close together, in the city centre, and there’s a free bus out to the more distant accommodation. Birmingham’s campus is ten minutes from the city centre, and the university is known for being quite sporty. If you don’t consider yourself to be a city person, though, you’re probably going to get on better with Bristol.

We hope that this article has provided some points of comparison that you might not have considered. Ultimately, however, the only way you can really make an informed decision is to visit each of the universities on your final shortlist and get a feel for which you prefer in terms of atmosphere, environment, facilities and staff. Your own personal circumstances and temperament will also have a role to play; you might want to be close to home, for example, meaning that the location of a university will be an important factor for you. Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, a lot depends on the course. Look at subject-specific league tables for a better idea of which areas your university choices excel in, and read in detail about each course to see which you think would be best suited to you and your career aims.

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Image credits: banner; Oxford; Leeds; LSE; Durham; St Andrews; Lancaster; Warwick; Sheffield; Bristol

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