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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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    • Singular Investor profile imageAUTHOR

      Singular Investor 

      5 years ago from Oxford

      Thanks for the comment ICV - glad to be of help in your search for information on the Russell Group of UK universities

    • icv profile image


      5 years ago

      very informative hub. Thanks for sharing and I would like to appreciate you for the massive research to accomplish this hub.

    • Singular Investor profile imageAUTHOR

      Singular Investor 

      6 years ago from Oxford

      Hi Tabitha,

      Thanks for the comment and the reminder about the disgrace that is university fees in the UK. For those who don't know, fees were introduced in the UK in the 1990s, prior to that a university education was free. Fees now generally amount to 9,000 UKP a year (around 15,000 USD). In addition to the fees you also need to be able to feed yourself and pay rent and other expenses for the duration of your course. A course usually lasts 3 or 4 years for undergraduates and you obtain a Bachelor's degree (hopefully) at the end. This means that the whole event can cost in the region of 60,000 UKP (90,000 USD). Most people of course do not have this sort of money, so they take out a loan, which they have to repay when they get a job and this will take a long long long time for most people! Plus of course they often end up trying to buy a house (more debt if they are actually successful in getting a mortgage) - a cheap tiny apartment (1 room) in London currently (2014) costs around 220,000 UKP (330,000 USD) - the average starting salary in the UK is generally around 20,000 UKP or less (30,000 USD). If you rent a room in a house (you share the bathroom and kitchen with the other strangers who live in the same house) this will cost anywhere between 600 and 1,000 UKP (900 and 1,500 USD) a month, depending on how many cats you like to swing. Transport in London accounts on average for 15% of a person's wages. How on earth people survive I don't know!

    • profile image


      8 years ago


      There are some other reasons as to why some universities decided not to be in one or other camp (excluding the majority of universities in the UK of course which are not in either Russell Group or 1994 Group). For instance several of the University of London colleges are against increasing fees for students and seek to obtain finance in other ways. Whereas the russell group actively advocates even more of an increase in fees. Therefore even though the 1994 group members, which are colleges of the University of London are more than capable and of a quality to be in the Russell Group, the manifesto of that group is at polar opposites to their own. Therefore one must take into account politics as well - and to be honest, these groups are not representational as high quality vs lesser (as many universities in the 1994 group rank higher than many in the Russell Group) but merely stances on political lobbying. I hope this helps.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      It's all so confusing. My son wants to study Football studies and business management and the school that offers just that is a millton+ school. I've gone through their website and I am really thrilled by what I see - vibrant modern and where a student can be truly happy. But I am disillusioned by the categorization of The Southampton Solent University. I guess like everybody points out, in terms of research = new school =maybe not too strong. In terms of teaching and learning - it appears an excellent place to be in. I haven't even gotten a proper review from an independent individual that is not Solent staff themselves or the students that went there. Can some independent individual help me examine this school properly. Their rating is between 109 =122. Ordinary this translates to not too good. But is that the case? or is it because it was a former polythecnic? In terms of teaching and learning, can it be compared with any of the russel group? I studied graphic arts and I know that if my daughter wanted to study in the Uk, I wouldn't hesitate to send her to Southampton solent, former polythecnic or not. I can do that becuse they seem to have a very strong background in arts. But this football and business- what is the criteria? Waiting.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Just to add sometimes you should look at the department / subject not the university. For instance, Salford University is ranked near the bottom of the standard (Guardian / Times) league tables. But its department for Building / Architecture / Civil Engineering is a top ranked EPSRC research establishment and in one research assessment was ranked only second to Cambridge.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Hi Sarah

      See and then look at the research funding sections. If the primary definition of a university is a higher education establishment then these figures matter less. If the primary definition of a university is research institute then they matter a lot. It depends on your definition. I had a discussion once about how this should be defined. I argued that teaching and development of new talent is just as important as the research. However, the point was made that included in the definition of a university, which pretty much distinguishes them from other institutes, is that they have the ability to award PhDs. The other argument is how other university rankings are formulated - for instance - entry requirements are part of the calculation - meaning if a university decides that it will only let in people with certain grades regardless of the education they provide they will be higher in the rankings. When looking at any of these rankings the one I find most important is the value added score. But of course all these rankings only refer to undergraduate teaching not the research or academics that the university produces.

    • Singular Investor profile imageAUTHOR

      Singular Investor 

      9 years ago from Oxford

      Hi Sarah, - I don't know - Durham is not in the Russell Group which is odd as I had always heard it was one of the best universities in the UK - but elitism is alive and well and no doubt ever will be. I'm sure there are people who only consider Russell Group universities.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      why are some Russell group universities so far down in the league table - Queens Belfast in the 50's so it cant be a top 20 making this concept nonsense. Another UK snobbish attempt at oneupmanship without logic.

    • Singular Investor profile imageAUTHOR

      Singular Investor 

      10 years ago from Oxford

      Thanks for the info. Me - sounds like a reasonable argument. I'm surprised to learn that Durham is a small university though after all it has been around for a while. For what it's worth I went to Lancaster and the teaching was rather like the curate's egg - parts of it were very good (unfortunately most was decidedly average and some of it was toxic) all IMHO of course :-)

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      The reason why places like Durham etc. are higher than Russell Group unis such as Cardiff is that the RG is a uni for large, research-intensive universities. These are the institutions with the highest research budgets in the UK, while the smaller universities like Durham do not have the same amount of students or research grants. This doesn't correlate to the quality of teaching, as we of course know (superstar academics devoting most of their time to research and ignoring the undergraduates).

    • Singular Investor profile imageAUTHOR

      Singular Investor 

      10 years ago from Oxford

      Thanks for the comment Helen - yes, I agree, especially about Lancaster ! The Russell Group does seem a bit arbitrary the way it was put together, maybe they were the only ones that turned up to the meeting. In this day and age though branding is important. The other day there was a programme on TV about getting good jobs and they mentioned the Russell Group a number of times, there was no mention of the other very good universities that weren't in it. I suspect that over time people looking for 'good' universities to get a good job will only apply to those in the Russell Group, I also suspect that the Russell Group will expand to include more universities.

    • profile image

      Helen Tedcastle 

      10 years ago

      If you look at the actual rankings of Universities in the Uk and the world, you will find that in fact many of the self-appointed elite of Russell group institutions fall behind those of the 1994 group Eg: Newcastle, Liverpool, Cardiff are well below rankings for Durham , York, Lancaster etc.. Russell group Unis may be biggest but they are not always the best.

    • Singular Investor profile imageAUTHOR

      Singular Investor 

      11 years ago from Oxford

      Thanks for dropping by Prasetio - Durham is a very nice university and a very old one

    • prasetio30 profile image


      11 years ago from malang-indonesia

      thanks for information. I have friend and now he is studying at Durham university. very nice hub.

    • LondonGirl profile image


      12 years ago from London

      Useful explanation of the Russell Group - nice one.

    • LondonGirl profile image


      12 years ago from London

      Useful explanation of the Russell Group - nice one.

    • Singular Investor profile imageAUTHOR

      Singular Investor 

      12 years ago from Oxford

      You're really quick !

    • Alex ONeill profile image

      Alex ONeill 

      12 years ago from Sweden (But I'm from Colorado)

      Cool stuff. I had no idea about stuff like that in England. Pretty eye opening


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