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University league tables: a guide to the best UK institutions in 2019

University league tables: a guide to the best UK institutions in 2019
Which universities come out on top? Credit:  Andrew Fox

Choosing which university to attend may well be one of the most important and difficult decisions you make in your lifetime. 

Overwhelmed? To help you out, we've singled out the top ten universities in the UK, with information about what makes studying at each one so special.  

The rankings are based on the latest 2020 data from the Complete University Guide, which ranks universities nationally and in 70 subject tables, as well as according to graduate prospects, entry standards, research quality and student satisfaction.

10. University College London

University College London

UCL was originally established as London University in 1826 by founders inspired by the radical ideas of philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It was the first university in England to take in students of any religion and the first to welcome women on equal terms with men. Today, students enjoy a wealth of social, cultural and educational activities, thanks to the university's location at the heart of the capital. Over 41 per cent of the student body comes from abroad, so students are exposed to a truly global and dynamic atmosphere. But for foreigners, this comes at a price. The UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI) requires students to have a budget of at least £1,265 for each month of the course, in addition to tuition fees.

Famous alumni: UCL boasts of having had at least one Nobel Laureate every decade since the prizes were first established. Other famous graduates include director Christopher Nolan; Coldplay singer Chris Martin; Indian freedom fighter and lawyer Mahatma Gandhi; philosopher John Stuart Mill and actor Ricky Gervais.

Fun fact: Visitors may be taken aback by a glass cabinet that contains the preserved body of Jeremy Bentham - on display in one of the campus buildings. The mummification process left him looking rather macabre, so he was given a wax head, complete with some of his own hair. The real head used to be displayed at his feet in the glass case, though now it's  stowed away elsewhere under lock and key.

 9. University of Bath

University of Bath graduates are top earners bringing home an average of £27,000 Credit: Allan Baxter/The Image Bank

Granted a Royal Charter in 1966, the University is located within the picturesque World Heritage city of Bath. The university, home to 18,676 students, positions itself as an international centre of research and teaching excellence. Investment in the university is unparalleled, and over the past decade over £450 million has been spent on facilities such as The Virgil student learning zone and The Edge arts centre. The university also prides itself on its sporting prowess. The multi million pound Sports Training Village can accommodate more than 50 sports and in the 2016 Rio Olympics, University of Bath-based athletes brought home 6 medals.

Famous alumni:Alumni includes Kelly Gallagher MBE, the winner of the first ever gold medal for Britain on snow and Belinda Phipps, Chair of the Fawcett Society

Fun fact:  One of the oldest pubs in the city, The Saracen’s Head, was once visited by Charles Dickens in 1835.

8. Loughborough University

Loughborough University

Attention party animals: Loughborough ranked first for social life and university facilities, and first overall for student experience in Times Higher Education's 2018 Student Experience Survey. As if that weren't enough, it also has an internationally-recognised reputation for sports, having acted as the official training camp for Team GB in the 2012 Olympics. The campus may be sprawling but students often comment on the warm and tight-knit atmosphere. Loughborough started out as a Technical Institute in 1909, and became a university in 1966. 

Famous alumni: With its impressive sporting facilities - including a 50m swimming pool and an outdoor stadium, the university has produced several sporting legends. Sebastian Coe and Paula Radcliffe are among former students who have gone on to break world records. 

Fun fact: Part of the campus serves as a home for the Loughborough University bees. In 2015, there were around 300,000 honeybees in the apiary.

7. Lancaster University

Lancaster University

Established by Royal Charter in 1964, Lancaster University is one of several higher education institutions that was created in the 1960s. With a campus filled with banks, shops, restaurants, bars, health services, cafés, and even its own theatre and art gallery, this collegiate university is almost a town in itself. It's also not too far from Lancaster city centre. For those more nature-inclined, the campus is located close to both the mountains and the sea . The university's wind turbine provides between 11-17 per cent of its energy.

Famous alumni: Notable graduates include Top Gear's James May and the award-nominated actor Andy Serkis. In 2013, Lancaster University scientist Dr Greg Holland helped discover the world's oldest water.

Fun fact: Lancaster's Pendle College gets its name from the infamous Pendle Witches who were hanged on Pendle Hill after being accused of witchcraft in 1612. The witch trial was recorded by clerk of the court Thomas Potts in his work 'The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster'.

6. Durham University

Durham University

Founded in 1832, Durham University claims to be the third oldest university in England (a title also claimed by University College London). But its history goes further back. In 1657, Oliver Cromwell and his privy council approved the creation of an independent Durham College. However, the college did not have the authority to award degrees. Today, Durham champions a research-led education with over 90 per cent of its degree programmes ranked in the UK top ten. Beyond their studies, students have opportunities to participate in more than 200 students' union societies, 84 volunteering projects, and 26 different student theatre companies. The university boasts of having a 90 per cent satisfaction rating. 

Fun fact: Students beware: legend has it that Durham University is haunted. Lady Grey is said to walk the staircase of Durham Castle, having suffered a fatal fall there in the 19th century; a paranormal spectre has also apparently been seen wandering round the student theatre. If that seems too spooky, you can  visit Durham Cathedral, where part of The Chamber of Secrets was filmed.

Famous alumni: Journalists Nina Hossain, Kate Silverton and Chris Hollins attended Durham, as well as broadcasters  Gabby Logan and Jeremy Vine.

5. Imperial College London

Imperial College London

As the only UK university to focus exclusively on science, engineering, medicine and business, Imperial welcomes its students into a tight-knit specialist community in the buzzing heart of London. With 190,000 alumni scattered across the globe, the university provides a widely connected web - which can be a great help to students when they embark on their working life. Imperial was formed in 1907 from the merger of the Royal College of Science, the Royal School of Mines and City & Guilds College. It became an independent university on its 100th birthday in 2007. 

Famous alumni: The discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming; the father of science fiction H. G. Wells; and Queen guitarist Brian May.

Fun fact: The rock band that later became Queen had its first gig at the student union. 

4. London School of Economics

London School of Economics

As one of the most respected social science universities in the world, LSE offers economics, politics, sociology, anthropology, law, and other disciplines. In the latest QS World University Rankings by Subject, which rates universities around the world in a range of areas, 13 LSE disciplines were placed in the global top ten. Plus, with 155 nationalities represented among its student body, the school has the second highest percentage of international students (70 per cent) of all the world's universities. And of course, students  have access to London's best bars, restaurants, nightclubs and entertainment .

Famous alumni:A total of 37 past or present prime ministers, presidents and premiers. Clearly there's something in the water.

Fun fact: LSE was founded by key members of a socialist organisation, the Fabian Society, in 1895. Ironically, its alumni have an impressive record for going on to become billionaires.

3. University of St Andrews

The University of St Andrews

Nestled in the small Scottish town of St Andrews, the university has been here since 1413 - which means the student experience is rife with old traditions. For Raisin Weekend, first-years are dressed up in silly costumes by their academic 'parents' (older students) before being despatched to the university's main lawn for a shaving-foam fight. So why is it called Raisin Weekend? Because 600 years ago,  freshers would give senior students a pound of raisins in gratitude for their help in adapting to university life; and in return they'd get  a receipt written in Latin. Meanwhile, the May Dip sees students plunge into the freezing waters of the North Sea at dawn, a practice said to promote good luck in the upcoming exams. Despite its age and beautiful medieval buildings, the university also has modern and cutting-edge science and arts facilities.

Famous alumni: The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and mathematician John Napier.

Fun fact: Back in 1544, the University banned beards. Yes, as in facial hair. Thankfully, that's no longer the case.

2. University of Oxford

University of Oxford

Consistently ranked among the world's best universities, it consists of  44 colleges and halls, as well as the UK's largest library system. The foundation date of the university is not known, though teaching here has existed in some form since 1096, making Oxford the world's second-oldest university after Bologna. The dining hall at Christchurch College served as inspiration for the Great Hall in the Harry Potter films, with some scenes filmed at the college itself. 

Famous alumni: Oxford has educated  27 British Prime Ministers, including Theresa May, as well as 30 international leaders, 50 Nobel Prize winners, and 120 Olympic medal winners. 

Fun fact: Legend has it that if Oxford students arrive at the Exam Schools on a horse, in full armour and carrying a sword, they will automatically be awarded a First. Worth a try!

1. University of Cambridge

University of Cambridge

The university reportedly grew from a group of  scholars  who fled Oxford following a dispute with the townspeople. However, it was officially founded in in 1209 and granted a Royal Charter by King Henry III in 1231. The rivalry between Cambridge and Oxford has never diminished, and culminates each year with the famous Boat Race. As well as its 31 colleges, Cambridge has more than 150 departments, faculties, schools and other institutions. It's also home to Cambridge University Press, the oldest publisher in the world.

Famous alumni: Apart from numerous British prime ministers, famous alumni include: physicists Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton, biologist Charles Darwin, computer scientist Alan Turing, actors Eddie Redmayne and Thandie Newton, and broadcaster David Attenborough.

Fun fact: According to tradition, a notorious wooden spoon was presented as a booby prize to the man who achieved the lowest marks in the Mathematical Tripos. The last wooden spoon was awarded to Cuthbert Lemriere Holthouse in 1909.

World's top 20 universities: how does Britain rank?