The UK is home to some of the oldest universities in the world. In fact, two English universities find themselves on the list of the 10 oldest universities in the world. The island country is known for its fantastic legends about kings and knights, but its selection of prestigious universities offer a rich historic atmosphere and beautiful ancient architecture that has inspired students for generations. The country’s 6 oldest universities were founded by the 17th century or earlier, and you’ll be surprised that it took almost another 250 years until the next university was founded. Here are the 10 oldest universities in the UK ranked by their official founding year.
Location: Aberystwyth, Wales
About: Aberystwyth University is a public research university in Aberystwyth, Wales. Though the name of the university and the town may look impossible to pronounce, a simple way to tackle pronunciation is to say the following four English words quickly: ab-a-wrist-with. The name stems from two Welsh words: aber, meaning “mouth,” and Ystwyth, which is the name of the river that drains into Cardigan Bay at Aberystwyth. You’ll be relieved to know that the university is known colloquially as simply “Aber.”
Aber contains six academic institutes and houses Wales' award-winning Students' Union that provides a comprehensive range of welfare, social and sporting facilities as well as the union bar and Brynamlwg Tavern, pronounced “bri-nam-lug.” In the middle of the 19th century, eminent Welsh people advocated for the establishment of a university in the Principality, and Aberystwyth University opened in October 1872 with just 26 students. The University first admitted female students in 1884, and is most famous for its upholding tradition and has come to be known as ‘the people’s university.’
Number of students: 8,455 (Undergraduates 7,325; Postgraduates 1,130)
Motto: Nid Byd, Byd Heb Wybodaeth(Welsh); A world without knowledge is no world at all
Colours: Green and red
Notable Alumni: HRH Charles, Prince of Wales
Nobel laureates: Frederick Soddy, who proved the existence of isotopes of certain radioactive elements
Fun fact: In 2009, students at Aberystwyth broke the Guinness World Record for “Largest gathering of people wearing only underpants/knickers” as part of I Love Aber week, but the title has since been given to the Utah Undie Run in Salt Lake City, USA, in 2011.
Location: Durham and Stockton-on-Tees, England
About: Durham University is a public research university whose estate spans around 227 hectares of land with a main campus in Durham and a second campus in Stockton-on-Tees. Its international approach welcomes about 21% of students who are not from the UK, with the staff and student body representing around 150 countries and nationalities. It is made up of three faculties: arts and humanities, science and social science, and health.
The University was founded by an Act of Parliament in 1832 and granted a Royal Charter in 1837, and includes 63 listed buildings ranging from 11th century Durham Castle to a 1930s Art Deco chapel. Initially, Durham degrees were only open to members of the Church of England, but that lasted until 1865. Currently, there are 16 colleges affiliated with the university, 14 of which are at the main campus in Durham and 2 of which are at the Queen's Campus in Stockton. In 1880 the College of Science first admitted women into its classrooms for study.
Number of students: 18,385 (Undergraduates 13,665; Postgraduates 4,720)
Motto: Fundamenta eius super montibus sanctis (Latin); Her foundations are upon the holy hills
Colours: Palatinate purple
Notable Alumni: Andrew Buchan, actor in BBC’s 2006 adaptation of Jane Eyre
Fun fact: Durham University became the first English university to establish a relationship with overseas institutions, first in 1875 with Codrington College in Barbados and then in 1876 with Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone. To this day, Durham facilitates the exchange of information for students interested in the work that the university undertakes with its partners in countries in Africa.
Location: London, England
About: The creators of the film Inception may have used the Front Quad, a lecture theatre, and the main library for the movie’s scenes, but UCL isn’t only known for its impressive campus. UCL is the first higher degree institution established in London with the third largest university in the UK by total enrollment, and in 1878 it also became the first British institution to admit women on equal terms with men into its programs. The university is organised into 11 constituent faculties and operates significant museums and manages collections in fields such as the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy. Alumni of UCL include multiple "Fathers of the Nation" from nations such as India, Kenya, Nigeria, and Mauritius.
The institution was founded under the name London University as an alternative to the Anglican universities of Oxford and Cambridge. During the Second World War it sustained considerable bomb damage, notably to the Great Hall and the Carey Foster Physics Laboratory. Under a new charter in 1976, the university established its independence and became formally known as University College London.
Number of students: 37,905 (Undergraduates 18,610; Postgraduates 19,295)
Motto: Cuncti adsint meritaeque expectent praemia palmae(Latin); Let all come who by merit deserve the most reward
Colours: Purple and blue
Notable Alumni: Mahatma Gandhi; Alexander G. Bell, who patented the first practical telephone and founded the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T); Chris Martin from Coldplay
Nobel laureates: 30 Nobel laureates have been affiliated UCL including Professor John O’Keefe, who discovered cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain, or an ‘inner GPS,’ that enables us to orient ourselves
Fun fact: After his death in 1832, Professor Jeremy Bentham’s remains were treated according to unusual instructions as decreed in his will. His skeleton is on display in a special cabinet at UCL, seated and dressed according to his request and topped by a wax model of his head. His real, mummified head is kept in a climate-controlled storeroom.
Location: Manchester, England
About: Manchester is the purple centre of England. Though Manchester University may be known for its use of the colour for activities like the “Purple Wave,” a running event organised to raise money for scholarships and good causes, it’s also known to have a non-traditional campus in which university buildings are dispersed throughout the city of Manchester. The modern University of Manchester was officially launched in 2004, and the institution has traditionally had a strong student and staff faculty in the sciences. In 1883 it allowed the admission of women into its programs.
The University's origins as England’s first civic university are closely linked to Manchester’s development as the world’s first industrial city. It can trace its roots to the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), which was established to ensure that workers could learn the basic principles of science within the world's first industrial city. UMIST merged with Victoria University of Manchester, which was the former name of the University of Manchester, to become a single institution in 2003. In 1880 the university became England's first civic university.
Number of students: 40,490 (Undergraduates 27,895; Postgraduates 12,590)
Motto: Cognitio, sapientia, humanitas(Latin); Knowledge, Wisdom, Humanity
Colours: Blue, gold, and purple
Notable Alumni: Benedict Cumberbatch, who stars in the crime TV series Sherlock; Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange
Nobel laureates: 25 Nobel laureates have been affiliated with University of Manchester including Ernest Rutherford for experiments in atomic physics
Fun fact: Students are known to take a picture of or climb onto the Vimto statue when drunk. The statue is a monument to the Manchester-born drink Vimto, which is made of a mix of blackcurrants, raspberries, grapes, and herbs that gives it a distinctly medicinal tang.
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
About: You’ll find Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s commemorative plaque on the main entrance of the Medical School Building and perhaps try to follow in his footsteps to create a character that will be loved for his wit. As timeless as the character Sherlock is, the University of Edinburgh presents itself as an ancient university with many of the buildings in the historic Old Town of Edinburgh belonging to the University. The institution helped give the city its nickname "Athens of the North" for its reputation as a chief intellectual centre during the Age of Enlightenment, and its alumni include some of the major figures of modern history. Centered in the vibrant, cosmopolitan capital city of Scotland, annual events like The Edinburgh International Festival and Festival Fringe make Edinburgh a cultural hub and a hugely popular study destination.
The Edinburgh Town Council founded the University of Edinburgh as a college of law. It was formally established as a college by a Royal Charter in 1582 and first opened its doors in 1583, renamed King James's College in 1617, and its first custom-build building was the Old College.
Number of students: 36,491 (Undergraduates 23,301; Postgraduates 13,190)
Colours: Blue, black, white, and red
Notable Alumni: Charles Darwin, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Nobel laureates: 23 Nobel laureates are affiliated with University of Edinburgh including Professor Charles G. Barkla, who discovered characteristic X-ray elements in 1917
Fun fact: Winston Churchill became the University of Edinburgh’s rector in 1929.
Location: Aberdeen, Scotland
About: Students may marvel at Aberdeen’s record number of whisky distillers of any whisky producing area in Scotland, but the university is also known to have hosted EXPLORATHON, an event that brings together students, pupils, researchers and members of the public to celebrate the best of innovation, research and development from Scotland’s universities. The University of Aberdeen is one of two universities in the city of Aberdeen and the university's iconic buildings act as symbols of wider Aberdeen, in particular Marischal College and the spire of King's College. The main campus is now at King's College and covers an area of some 35 hectares, and its historic beautiful buildings form a quadrangle with an interior court.
The University of Aberdeen originally started in 1495 as King’s College and it was William Elphinstone, then Bishop of Aberdeen, who petitioned Pope Alexander VI to form the facility. It was formed in order to cure the 'ignorance' that the Bishop witnessed. The modern University of Aberdeen is the result of a merger between the original King’s College and the newer Marischal College in 1860, which up until that point had been a rival institution. It opened up its classes to female students in 1892.
Number of students: 14,150 (Undergraduates 10,210; Postgraduates 3,940)
Motto: Initium sapientiae timor domini (Latin); The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom
Colours: Burgundy and white
Notable Alumni: Iain Glen (Game of Thrones actor)
Nobel laureates: 5 Nobel laureates including Sir George Paget Thomson in Physics for discovering the wave-like properties of the electron
Fun fact: When a new Rectors joins the university, he or she is carried astride the student mascot, a life-sized model of a bull known as “Angus,” down the High Street and must buy a pint for each person who carries them. Usually, members of the rugby club receive the reward of beer.
Location: Glasgow, Scotland
About: Though it’s famous for alumni that have been at the front of innovation, like James Watt who gave power to the industrial revolution and Ian Donald, who showed the world the first ultrasound of a foetus, the University of Glasgow is known as an ancient public research university that originally educated students from wealthy backgrounds. It has since expanded to provide education for students from the growing urban and commercial middle class, and in 2016 the University played a leading role in the discovery of the historic first observation of gravitational waves and confirmation of Einstein's last unproven theory.
The institution was added to the city's Cathedral in 1451 by a charter from Pope Nicholas V. The original records of the foundation of the University are no longer to be found, and were presumably lost during the Scottish Reformation, when the then chancellor Archbishop James Beaton fled to France, bringing archives and valuables with him. John Anderson, a professor of natural philosophy, pioneered vocational education for working men and women during the Industrial Revolution.
Number of students: 28,615 (Undergraduates 20,420; Postgraduates 8,195)
Motto: Via, Veritas, Vita(Latin); The Way, The Truth, The Life
Colours: Yellow and black
Notable Alumni: Adam Smith, economist who laid the foundations of classical free market economic theory; Gerard Butler, actor who portrayed King Leonidas in the war film 300; John Logie Baird, inventor of both the first publicly demonstrated colour television system and the first purely electronic colour television picture tube
Nobel laureates: 7 Nobel laureates including Sir William Ramsay in Chemistry for his discovery of inert gases which established a new group in the Periodic Table of Elements
Fun fact: It’s possible to view the list of 18,863 students who graduated from the university before 1914, since the university had maintained detailed records of its graduates prior to 1914.
Location: St. Andrews, Scotland
About: The most famous golf course in the world, the Old Course in St. Andrews, dates back to the medieval times and is still in use today, hosting the prestigious Open Championships. If you aren’t as interested in golf, you can definitely consider studying at the University of St. Andrews, an ancient public research university comprised of three colleges: United College, St. Mary's College, and St. Leonard's College. With a notably diverse student body, over 135 nationalities are represented with about half of its intake from countries outside of the UK. The campus is spread throughout the town, occupying historic and modern buildings. About half of the student body live in university halls.
The university was founded by a group of Augustinian clergy who formed a society of higher learning in the town, offering courses of lectures in divinity, logic, philosophy, and law. Despite the poverty of Scotland during the 17th and 18th centuries, it has since progressed to become increasingly popular among the Scottish upper classes, who would send their students to attend the country's oldest higher learning institution.
Number of students: 10,330 (Undergraduates 8,250; Postgraduates 2,080)
Motto: Αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν (Greek); Ever to Excel
Colours: White, dark blue and light blue
Notable Alumni: Prince William; Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge; Rudyard Kipling
Nobel laureates: 6 Nobel laureates including James Black for his work leading to the development of propranolol, a kind of medicine that affects the heart and circulation, and cimetidine, which is used to treat conditions that cause the stomach to produce too much acid
Fun fact: Prince William and Kate aren’t just alumni of St. Andrews; they started dating at St. Andrews in 2001. Prospective students may attend St. Andrews in the hopes of finding their own duke or duchess!
Location: Cambridge, England
About: You’ll see the university’s police force in their traditional cloak and hat uniform and students wearing sub fusc, gowns with a dark suit and white shirt or blouse, but the University of Cambridge is most notably a public research university whose history and influence has made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world. It houses the world's oldest publishing house and the second-largest university press in the world, Cambridge University Press. The University operates multiple cultural and scientific museums and provides its students with access to around 15 million books.
In 1209, groups of scholar congregated in Cambridge for the purpose of study, and the Bishop of Ely founded the first college at Cambridge, called Peterhouse. Since its establishment, the university has formed 31 constituent colleges with over 100 academic departments organised into 6 schools. The University of Cambridge has over 100 libraries. It wasn’t until 1948 that women were considered full members of the University.
Number of student: 19,955 (Undergraduates 12,340; Postgraduates 7,610)
Motto: Hinc lucem et pocula sacra (Latin); From this place, we gain enlightenment and precious knowledge
Colours: Cambridge blue
Notable Alumni: Charles Darwin; Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist and cosmologist who was the first to set out a theory of cosmology explained by a union of the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics and author of A Brief History of Time; HRH Charles, Prince of Wales
Nobel laureates: 116 Nobel laureates are affiliated with Cambridge including Robert G. Edwards for the development of in vitro fertilization; James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins for determining the structure of DNA
Fun fact: A frowned-upon but popular activity of Cambridge’s students involves climbing onto the college buildings at night.
Location: Oxford, England
About: When people think about prestigious universities in the UK, the University of Oxford and its long-standing tradition and centuries of history is quick to come to mind. It is the oldest university in the UK and educates a body of talented students locally and from all around the world. The University of Oxford is known formally as The Chancellor Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford, and has buildings and facilities scattered throughout the city centre. Oxford is a private university and is made up of 38 constituent colleges and a full range of academic departments, organised further into four divisions. In order to be a member of University of Oxford, all students must also be a member of a college or hall.
Though there is no known foundation date, teaching in Oxford can be traced back to 1096. The student body grew when English students returned to Oxford from the University of Paris, and the teaching body was recognised as a universitas or corporation in 1231. Oxford was granted a royal charter in 1248 during the reign of King Henry III. The two ancient universities of England, Oxford and Cambridge, are referred to Oxbridge and enjoy worldwide recognition. The year 1920 saw the admission of female students to Oxford.
Number of students: 23,195 (Undergraduates 11,728; Postgraduates 10,941)
Motto: Dominus Illuminatio Mea(Latin); The Lord is my Light
Colours: Oxford blue
Notable Alumni: 27 British prime ministers; 30 international leaders; Albert Einstein; Adam Smith; Margaret Thatcher; J.R.R. Tolkien; Bill Clinton; Oscar Wilde; Hugh Grant; Amal Clooney; Stephen Hawkings
Nobel laureates: 29 Nobel laureates are affiliated with Oxford including Erwin Schroedinger, Austrian physicist who is known for his “Schrödinger’s cat” thought-experiment; Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese politician and leader of the National League for Democracy, a position akin to prime minister; Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate
Fun fact: The word “snob” actually originated at Oxford. It started off as an abbreviated form of the Latin phrase “sine nobilitate”, which means “without nobility.”