There are over 100 universities in the UK, each offering a range of postgraduate courses and degrees. Despite the large number, each university in the UK is unique, characterised by its reputation, buildings, teaching style and location. Some of the UK institutions place value on research, whilst other universities focus their efforts on teaching. As such, selecting a university for postgraduate study is an important and sometimes difficult choice.
In order to understand the different types of universities in the UK, many people group the institutions into groups. The two main groups are known as 'old universities' and 'new universities', which are categorised by their name prior to 1992. Institutions that were called universities before 1992 are known as ‘old universities’, whilst those institutions who gained university status after 1992 have come to be known as 'new universities'.
Old universities are categorised by their age, but despite this not all of these universities hold long histories. To confuse matters further, Old universities can be further subdivided into three subcategories; ancient, red brick and plate glass universities.
Ancient universities are those institutions that were founded more than 150 years ago. The group only contains six British universities and one Irish; Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dublin (continued as Trinity College, Dublin).
Red Brick Universities
The term 'red brick' universities is an informal term used to refer to six of England’s universities that were founded in the major industrial cities, they are often referred to as the civic universities. Towards the end of the 1880s, the English civic university movement developed as people began to recognise the correlation between providing knowledge and economic growth. The universities of Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol and Manchester are all classified as 'red brick' universities.
Plate Glass Universities
During the first half of the 1960s, a government report was published that recommended that the UK increase the number of its universities to help economic growth. Many of these universities were established from new, built on greenfield campus sites, such as the universities of Bath, Essex, Keele, Lancaster and Warwick. The universities of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, Warwick, York and Lancaster University are all referred to as 'Plate Glass Universities'. Many of these universities are based upon campus designs, rather than the city designs of the red brick era and are normally characterised by their architectural use of concrete and glass.
Universities categorised as new are those that gained university status after 1992, although some have been in existence for many years with history dating back into the 18th Century. Most were originally polytechnics, central institutions or colleges of higher education, but in 1992, the British government gave these institutions the same status and powers of universities. Due to this, a large number of 'new' universities formed including the universities of Derby, East London, Nottingham Trent University and Plymouth University.
There are a number of other ways universities in the UK are grouped, some of which are helpful for identifying which are best suited to your postgraduate study. The three most prominent university groups are:
- The Russell Group is made up of 24 universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research.
- The 1994 Group is made up of 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.
- Million+ is a group of 29 'new' universities.
Membership to any of these groups cannot be used as an indicator of the overall quality of a university's postgraduate programmes. It does however show the aims and mission set out by the university and the where it chooses to position itself in the UK higher education market, whether it be on the research side or whether it focuses on taught postgraduate degrees. To compare UK university rankings you can read the top UK universities list.