What are the best universities in the UK?

This article looks at how to select the best university in the UK for your child. We focus on rankings and their utility as well as the importance of the Russell Group. 


When most parents and student think about how to pick the best university in the UK, they inevitably look for rankings in the hope that there is a quick and easy answer to the question that this article looks to address. As with most major decisions, however, the challenge must be addressed in a more personal way. 

How to use University Rankings

There are some positives to be gained from looking at rankings. They can act as a good starting point to help you feel like you have some grounding in the search for the university that will best suit your child. 

The three rankings that I would recommend beginning with are The Complete University Guide, The Times Higher Education Rankings and The Top Universities Rankings

The way that I would use the rankings would be to line them up next to each other and compare how they rank the various institutions. If you can see that Bath University ranked in the top 5 in all three rankings then this is a strong sign. If Manchester came in at 5th, 15th and 25th then there may be some question marks over this university if you are comparing it to another that is liked which was more consistent.

Keep in mind…

Be aware that rankings are only ever a snapshot in time for the year that they are assessing. Also keep in mind that each ranking is measuring something slightly different – so take a look at the workings of each ranking and how it weights certain features before attaching the overall score to the university. Then in the above imaginary scenario of Manchester, consider if the factors in ranking one, where Manchester was ranked 5th are more or less important to your child. 

The main thing to keep in mind is that rankings are ever-changing. This is a problem for future employers when they think about your child’s university. Liverpool Hope may have been incredible for the 3 year period that your child was studying there between 2021-2024, coming in top of all three rankings for that period but but in 2027 when it has reverted to type and your child is going for his or her second job out of university at Jaguar Land Rover and competing against a graduate of UCL, which consistently came in the top 10 throughout that time period but perhaps, more importantly, is also a Russell Group University, your child may have an unintentional barrier to reaching the interview stage if said company uses institution as a flawed, but often-employed touchpoint, for sifting applications. 

Russell Group Universities…

The Russell Group is a self-selected association of twenty-four public research universities in the United Kingdom. It was established in 1994 to represent its members’ interests, principally to government and parliament. The Russell Group, wrongly or rightly, is usually seen as the Gold Standard of UK university education. It comprises the most historic institutions with formidable reputations, including: Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, LSE and Durham, to name a few. 

Unlike rankings, the reputation of these universities are unlikely to shift and vary from year to year. Of course, any institution may come to lose its reputation over a longer period but these universities will be known in wider circles and historically, as having been a strong and reputable university. When one takes into consideration that those people in charge of hiring and firing at most major organisations are inevitably slightly older, it is clear that they will be very aware of the reputation that universities have had over the long term. 

… Plus a few

Of course, self-selection, usually leads to a few strong candidates missing out, either because they weren’t invited to the party, didn’t think the party looked enticing enough or wouldn’t have been considered elite enough at the time that the party started. Some, at this point, may draw unfortunate comparisons with the Premier League elite’s horribly executed attempt to separate themselves in a similar self-selecting and self-serving fashion. 

The University of Bath and St Andrews are two historic educational powerhouses that are not part of the Russell Group whose standing is as strong as ever and would be recognised by all employers as equals alongside the other Russell Group institutions. A few other notable mentions should go to SOAS and City, to Lancaster and to Loughborough, who have all carved strong reputations for themselves in recent years, though they would not be seen on quite the same level as Bath, St Andrews and the Russell Group, but sitting just below. 

Most importantly

Whilst this gives you a starting point how to think about rankings vs the Russell Group, the key thing to understand is that university is about fit. There is no point pushing a student predicted 2 Cs and a D to apply to a Russell Group university: 

  1. they won’t get in 
  2. if they did, they would likely have a torrid time (see Malcolm Gladwell’s chapter on education and relative deprivation in David and Goliath – summarised here – although not the most detailed summary I’ve seen!) 

Grades and fit is just one part of the equation. 

Ultimately, in applying to a UK university, the most important thing by far, is finding the right course – unlike across the pond in the States, where fit is all about the institution. See this article which I wrote earlier in the year, which addresses how to tackle the crucial exercise of course choice selection.  

James Higgins, Bonas MacFarlane | Director of University Admissions james@bonasmacfarlane.co.uk

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