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UK Universities: The international students’ guide

Researching and applying for UK universities can be a daunting task. There are different rankings and league tables to understand, different groups of universities, and different towns and cities to evaluate. That’s before you’ve even applied. 


For international students, this task can be made even more challenging by not always being able to travel to visit every different institution to be considered. 


The benefits of thorough research are, however, significant. So too are the benefits of studying at some of the UK’s leading universities. Therefore, it’s safe to say that this is a vital part of the process, and well worth taking some time to do. 


This guide aims to help prospective students to understand the UK university landscape, so that they can successfully evaluate their options and make an informed decision. 


So to begin with, what are all of these different rankings about? 


UK University rankings


There are numerous different rankings of UK universities at both institutional and subject level. Nearly every UK university seems to promote a different ranking system, especially when it helps them to rank more highly. 


The leading ranking systems for UK universities include: 

-       The Times/Sunday Times Good University Guide 

-       The Guardian University Guide

-       The Complete University Guide 


All three of these are considered reputable ranking systems for UK universities. However, and quite confusingly, there is significant disparity between the different rankings. 


Let’s consider each of these individually: 


The Times/Sunday Times Good University Guide


The Times/SundayTimes offer what they call a ‘definitive’ guide to UK Universities. In their evaluations, the eight scoring criteria range from the student experience to job prospects following graduation. This guide is available in both print and online, and they also provide a ‘table of tables’ each year, which combines the results of all three league tables. 


The scoring criteria for The Times/Sunday Times Good University Guide are: 

1.    Student satisfaction (+50 to -55 points) 

2.    Teaching excellence (out of 250) 

3.    Heads’/peer assessment (out of 100)

4.    Research quality (out of 200) 

5.    A-level/Highers points (out of 250) 

6.    Unemployment (out of 100) 


The top 10 UK universities, as ranked by The Times/Sunday Times Good University Guide for 2024, are: 

  1. University of Oxford.

  2. University of St Andrews.

  3. University of Cambridge.

  4. London School of Economics and Political Science.

  5. Imperial College London.

  6. University College London.

  7. Durham University.

  8. University of Bath.

  9. University of Warwick

  10. Loughborough University


The Guardian University Guide


Available both online and in print, The Guardian University Guide ranks UK universities based on 8 separate criteria weighted between 5 and 15%. This is the only guide that does not include research output as a criteria. 


The Guardian University Guide scoring criteria are: 

1.    Entry standards (15%) 

2.    Student-staff ratio (15%) 

3.    Career prospects (15%) 

4.    Student satisfaction (10%) 

5.    Overall satisfaction (10%)

6.    Expenditure per student (5%)

7.    Value added (15%) 

8.    Continuation (15%) 

The top 10 UK universities, as ranked by The Guardian University Guide 2024, are: 


  1. University of St Andrews.

  2. University of Oxford.

  3. University of Cambridge.

  4. London School of Economics and Political Science.

  5. Imperial College London.

  6. University of Bath.

  7. Durham University.

  8. University College London.

  9. University of Warwick

  10. Loughborough University

The Complete University Guide


The Complete University Guide uses a statistical method, known as the Z-transformation, to evaluate UK universities using ten criteria. Each carries a weight between 0.5 and 1.5.  


These criteria include:

1.      Academic services spend (0.5) 

2.    Continuation (1.0)

3.    Entry standards (1.0) 

4.    Facilities spend (0.5) 

5.    Graduate prospects ​​– on track (0.33)

6.    Graduate prospects ​​– outcomes (0.67)

7.    Research quality (1.0) 

8.    Research intensity (0.5) 

9.    Student satisfaction (1.5) 

10. Student-staff ratio (1.0)


The top 10 UK universities, as ranked by The Complete University Guide 2024, are: 

1.    University of Cambridge

2.    University of Oxford

3.    London School of Economics and Political Science

4.  University of St. Andrews

5.    University of Bath 

6.    Imperial College London 

7.    Loughborough University  

8.    Durham University 

9.    University College London

10. Lancaster University



But what about the Russell Group Universities? 


Perhaps confusingly, there is a group of elite universities. This is The Russell Group. So, what is The Russell Group? 


The Russell Group is a self-selected association of 24 UK universities with a shared focus on research and academic excellence. The Group includes six traditional ‘red brick’ universities, and all of its members are usually found in the rankings of top UK universities. 


Founded in 1994, the Russell Group began with 17 member universities, with the Heads of these universities meeting in the Hotel Russell in London’s Russell Square – hence the Group’s name. Seven additional universities have joined in the years since, and the Russell Group was formally incorporated in 2007. 


The UK universities belonging to the Russell Group are as follows: 


·      University of Birmingham

·      University of Bristol

·      University of Cambridge

·      Cardiff University

·      Durham University

·      University of Edinburgh

·      University of Exeter

·      University of Glasgow

·      Imperial College London

·      King's College London

·      University of Leeds

·      University of Liverpool

·      London School of Economics & Political Science

·      University of Manchester

·      Newcastle University

·      University of Nottingham

·      University of Oxford

·      Queen Mary, University of London

·      Queen's University Belfast

·      University of Sheffield

·      University of Southampton

·      University College London

·      University of Warwick

·      University of York

UK University: Choosing a location

Beyond looking at university rankings, another key aspect of choosing a UK university is location. After all, you need to choose somewhere that you are going to be happy living. 


In the UK, you really are spoiled for choice in terms of beautiful locations, cultural hubs, and historic towns and cities. The variety and volume of excellent choices, however, makes deciding even more difficult. 


When choosing a location, the following are helpful aspects to consider: 

·      Cost of living – Is the town or city cheap or expensive for students? 

·      Culture – What is the culture like? Is it a friendly, provincial setting, or is it a big city? Are there art galleries, music venues, and other cultural hubs? 

·      Weather – What is the weather like? Is it warm or cold? 

·      Landscape – Is it coastal or inland? Is the university located rurally or in a city centre? 

·      City vs. Town – Do you want to study in a bustling city, or a quieter town? 

·      Your own interests and hobbies – Will you be able to continue pursuing the things that matter to you? 


Ultimately, when choosing locations, it is worth considering the elements that are most important to you. These will be wholly dependent on the individual. The internet is a great resource when travelling to visit UK universities might be difficult.


The Uni Guide’s ‘University Quiz’ is a quick and easy way of understanding which factors matter the most to you. 


Applying to a UK university


Once you have found the UK universities that you want to apply to, the next stage is to commence the application process. 


In the UK, the specific entrance requirements for international students vary between institutions, but in general you will need: 

-       An up-to-date passport

-       An English language proficiency test

-       Proof of how your studies will be funded

-       A transcript detailing your academic achievements, and 

-       A personal statement that sets you apart from other students


Once you are ready to apply, all applications are processed through UCAS. Their online portal is easy to navigate and guides you through the process, step-by-step. Unlike the United States, applications are not specific to the institutions you are applying to, so you only need to complete one application which will then be sent to multiple universities. 


As of 2024, the cost of applying to UK universities is £22.50 if you are applying to one university, and £27.50 if you are applying to multiple universities. 


You can find out more on the UCAS website

UK University: Make informed decisions


Researching and applying to university in the UK is an exciting prospect. It is vital that you take your time, understand all of your options, and make an informed decision. 

For this reason, we offer free University Admissions Talks from the UK’s leading universities, to help you evaluate your options thoroughly. We also provide a range of pre-University courses to help prepare you for the rigours of studying in the UK. 


If you would like to find out more, please get in touch today. 



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