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Russell Group - the Best Universities in the UK?

Updated on August 13, 2020
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I have a B.A. and a PGCE from the University of Oxford and many years experience trading the stock market.

The Russell Group of Best Universities in Britain

Which are the Top Universities in the UK?

And which are the top 10 UK universities considered good enough to rank among the best universities in the world? (see below)

If you want to see the list of best universities in Britain without the explanation then scroll down the page. If you want to read the explanation then read on.

[UPDATE: A report published in June 2015 by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission shows just how important it is in the UK, if you want to get one of the top jobs in an elite firm, to have attended the right school or university - "at leading accountancy firms, typically forty to fifty per cent of applicants have been educated at a Russell Group university" "at elite law, accountancy and financial firms ... 70% of jobs went to applicants from private or selective schools" (cost around $40,000 a year x 13 years). In addition to this, if you don't have the right sort of accent then things will still be tough - "old-fashioned snobbery about accents and mannerisms was being used by top companies to filter out working-class candidates and favour the privileged".

"In sum, students at Russell Group universities are on average more likely to have enjoyed educational and economic advantages compared to many students educated elsewhere. These advantages are further reinforced in the recruitment and selection process."

Blighty is still an amazingly class-ridden society, just look at our current Tory government, where snobbery and breeding are not the sole preserve of horses. So if you have a good education from a Russell Group university (frankly Oxford or Cambridge are by far and away the best for snobbery points) but you don't have the right genes, I recommend classes in elocution, etiquette and British social skills (see Debretts for this) to at least allow you to have a chance of faking it - some unscrupulous individuals in their quest for a top job have even been known to embellish their CVs, but you're on shaky ground there and you would need to watch out for any trick questions designed to catch you out! The upper classes are ruthless and determined to hang on to their power and privileges, so you would soon be booted out if ever they caught you out trying to pull the wool over their eyes.]

So, back to the original article on the Russell Group. If you are thinking of applying to university in the UK then you may be wondering which are the best universities and which ones will give you the best job prospects once you have graduated. Well the top 24 universities in the UK - (originally there were 19 universities in the Russell Group but this was expanded to 24 in March 2012 as universities realized it was in their interest to be classed in the 'best' group rather than with the other lot) - very conveniently joined forces in a 'club' which they call the Russell Group of universities.

Back in the 'good old days' everyone knew that Oxford and Cambridge were the best universities in the UK and indeed the world! If you were very bright (or daddy was very rich) then you went to one of these two universities. After Oxford and Cambridge came the 'best of the rest' - places where students often considered themselves to be 'Oxbridge rejects'- places like Edinburgh, Bristol, London, and possibly a few more.

 After these came the old universities in major towns and cities followed by the newer universities. If you couldn't get in to one of these universities you applied to one of the many polytechnics around the country.

The End of the Polytechnics

Best Universities in Britain

St Johns College, Oxford University member of the Russell Group
St Johns College, Oxford University member of the Russell Group

In 1992, in a fit of egalitarianist zeal, and no doubt because someone thought there were votes to be had, the UK decided to put an end to polytechnics. They did this by changing their name and calling them universities. One of the aims was to put an end to elitism and have a more 'democratic' system. But a rose by any other name etc...

Human nature being what it is people want to get the best for themselves or their children if they possibly can, so going to the best universities is still important. One of the reasons being, of course, that your job prospects are greatly enhanced if you can say you went to Oxford University than if you went to Xtown Polytechnic. Every country in the world has its prestigious educational establishments for the intellectually or financially or politically well--endowed elite and its ordinary establishments for everybody else. Even in places like the Soviet Union there were prestigious institutes and universities for the children of the great and the good. Absolute egalitarianism and equality of opportunity is just a dream I'm afraid.

The upshot for universities in Britain was that in 1994 a group of universities decided they need to form themselves into a select group which they named the ' Russell Group of Universities' (compared by some to the Ivy League in the USA) to distinguish themselves from the rest, or as they put it :

with the aim of :

  • maximising income for member institutions;
  • leading the research effort in the UK;
  • creating the regulatory environment needed to achieve these objectives by reducing government interference;
  • attracting the best staff and students;
  • identifying ways to co-operate to make best use of the universities' collaborative advantage.

They took the name the Russell Group from the Russell hotel in which the first meeting took place in Russell Square in London.

In the National Student Survey in the UK, Russell Group Universities get average to strong ratings but there are other universities that get better ratings. There are also universities not in the Group with higher levels of employment for graduates than Russell Group Universities.

The Russell Group Universities are, however, perceived as being among the best with regard to academic achievement, so get more applications from future undergraduates.

As a reaction to the Russell Group, 19 other research universities created the '1994 Group' (this was reduced to 11 as universities switched camp but in November 2013 was disbanded, so now no longer exists). One criticism of the Russell Group of universitiies is that they place higher priority on research ratings and their teaching quality has suffered.

The Russell Group of Self-Declared Best Universities in Britain

The Twenty-Four Russell Group Universities i.e. the Best Universities in the UK are (in alphabetical order):-

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 London
University College London, University of London
University of Leeds
University of Liverpool
London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London
University of Manchester
Newcastle University
University of Nottingham
Queen Mary University London
Queen's University Belfast
University of Oxford
University of Sheffield
University of Southampton
University of Warwick
University of York

There also used to be a '1994 Group' of 11 Universities but in November 2013 this group disbanded - the universities still in the 1994 Group when it disbanded were: -

Birkbeck, University of London
University of East Anglia
University of Essex
Goldsmiths, University of London
Royal Holloway, University of London
Lancaster University
University of Leicester
Institute of Education, University of London
Loughborough University
School of Oriental and African Studies
University of Sussex

Over the years, the universities of St Andrews, Bath, Surrey, and Reading have all withdrawn from the 1994 Group and are currently non-aligned.

Finally some more statistics about the elitist system that prevails in the UK - "More recently, research commissioned by the SMCPC and published in its 2014 report ‘Elitist Britain’ found that 71% of senior judges were educated at fee-paying schools, whilst 75% had attended Oxbridge (Oxford or Cambridge). People from privileged backgrounds were also found to dominate a range of ‘top jobs’, including the senior levels of the armed forces, civil service, newspapers and parliament. These figures are particularly striking given that only 7% of people in the UK are educated at fee-paying schools in total, and whilst 38% of the adult population have attended university, just 0.8% have attended Oxbridge."

The 10 UK universities good enough to be among the best in the world

Which of the UK universities are considered to be among the best in the world? Here is the top 10 best ranked UK Universities in world rankings.

The Times Higher Education world university rankings for 2015/16

1. University of Oxford
World ranking: 2
World ranking in 2014: 3

2. University of Cambridge
World ranking: 4
World ranking in 2014: 5

3. Imperial College London
World ranking: 8
World ranking in 2014: =9

4. University College London
World ranking: 14
World ranking in 2014: 22

5. London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
World ranking: 23
World ranking in 2014: =34

6. University of Edinburgh
World ranking: 24
World ranking in 2014: 36

7. King’s College London
World ranking: 27
World ranking in 2014: 40

8. University of Manchester
World ranking: =56
World ranking in 2014: =52

9. University of Bristol
World ranking: 69
World ranking in 2014: 74

10. Durham University
World ranking: 70
World ranking in 2014: =83

Tour of St John's College, Oxford University


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