British Universities

In Great Britain, new universities are founded by Act of Parliament or Royal Charter. In addition, for an institution to be allowed to award degrees, it must be recognized by the Privy Council, an advisory body to the British Head of State (i.e. the monarch).

One of the main differences between the British and the American University system is that all of Britain's universities except for the University of Buckingham, are financed by the State. In America on the other hand there are just about as many public as private institutions of higher education. The British is therefore much more similar to the German university system than the American. Yet the important fact to consider about British academic institutions is that even though they are financed by the British government, no university is actually owned by the State and in spite of the state's sponsoring of universities, fees at British university are considerably higher than they are going to be at German institutions. For more information see "student fees".

As opposed to the American and German system, students in the United Kingdom generally study only one subject instead of a combination of minor and master.

One particularity of universities in UK is that most students choose to attend institutions far away from their hometowns. Consequently most universities provide accommodation for their students or at least help them find a place to live.

Four Main Types

There are four main types of British Universities.

1. Ancient Universities

Ancient universities in the United Kingdom and Ireland were founded during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Since no universities were founded in the United Kingdom and Ireland between the 16th and 19th century, the term "ancient university" generally refers to institutions of higher education that were established before the 19th century.

The ancient universities (in order of formation) are:


Due to their sheer age and continuous academic and scientific output, all of the ancient universities are very reputable. The two top universities in UK, which are continuously found in first and second place of the British league tables, are Oxford and Cambridge. Together they are known as Oxbridge and share a century old rivalry, which dates back to when Cambridge was founded by dissident Oxford scholars.

Oxbridge is often compared to the American Ivy League universities, but it is important to note that all Ivy League institutions are private universities, while Oxford and Cambridge are state-owned.

Both universities are divided into more than thirty colleges. Since each college at Oxford only offers a certain range of subjects, the choice of college often depends on the field of study. At Cambridge, on the other hand, all colleges give students to opportunity to study any subject offered by the university as a whole.

Yet in spite of the differences and rivalries, there is also much cooperation between Britain's two oldest academic institutions. Most Oxford colleges have a sister college in Cambridge. Some colleges even share a common name, but are not necessarily sister colleges. There is for instance a Trinity College at Oxford (sister college: Churchill College, Cambridge) as well as a Trinity College at Cambridge (sister college: Christ Church, Oxford).

2. Red Brick Universities

Red Brick Universities - named after the buildings they were housed in which were usually built with red brick - were founded in the industrial parts of the cities during the Victorian era (1837-1901) and before the Second World War. They are sometimes also called "civic universities", a movement that started in 1851 with Owens College, which later became the Victoria University of Manchester and today is called University of Manchester.

The main difference between Red Brick and ancient universities is that Red Bricks were so called non-collegiate institutions and admitted men without regarding their religion or social background. Furthermore they concentrated on teaching predominantly "practical subjects" often linked to engineering.

Some Red Brick universities include:

University of Manchester

Building at the University of Manchester


3. New Universities

Two types of universities are subsumed under the term "New Universities". First of all the academic institutions founded in the 1960s after the Robins Report. Besides recommending immediate expansion of universities, the Report also suggested elevating Colleges of Advanced Technology to university status.

Due to their modern architecture and the predominant use of large stretches of plate glass in steel or concrete frames, the institutions founded in the 1960s are often called "Plate Glass Universities". Some Plate glass universities such as York and Warwick have by now out-performed some Red Brick universities, especially on the field of research, which has improved their reputation considerably.

Here is a list of Plate Glass Universities with links to each institution:


The second group are the so called Post-1992 Universities. The term refers to former polytechnics that were given university status by John Major's government in 1992. They have the poorest reputation among British universities, and many of them regularly appear in bottom Tenth of league tables.

Here is a list of post-1992 universities with links to each institution:


4. Open University

Founded in 1986, the Open University is Britain's single distance-learning institution. In 2005 a total of 180,000 students, most of them based in the UK, were enrolled, which made it the largest institution of higher education in the UK by student numbers.

The Open University was rated top university in England and Wales for student satisfaction in 2005 and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education rated teaching at the Open University as excellent that same year. Just as any other academic institution, the Open University, too, actively engages in research and awards both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

Its administration is based at Walton Hall, Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, but there are additional offices in 13 regions around the UK.

Important Concepts Important Vocabulary
  • ancient universities (065)
  • Red Brick Universities / Red Bricks / civic universities (064)
  • New Universities (066)
  • Plate Glass Universities (067)
  • Post-1992 Universities (068)
  • Open University (069)
  • college (003)
  • Oxbridge (070)
  • Ivy League (021)
  • fees (007)
  • undergraduate (004)
  • postgraduate (071)
  • minor (010)
  • major (009)
  • league tables (072)
  • to provide information
  • to refer to
  • it must be noted that
  • to engage in research
  • to award degrees
  • field of study
  • due to
  • reputable / reputation
  • to improve one’s reputation

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