UK Universities on the Ground: Snapshot Impressions

Newcastle University School of Law.

I had the great fortune to be in the UK this past summer for nearly two weeks, touring a dozen university campuses from London to Newcastle. Glossy brochures can tell you about programs at one university or another; virtual tours can show you what the campus looks like. Lots of resources exist online to explain and promote the UK Higher Ed system (here’s a great one: Why Choose UK Higher Education?). And if you’re set on studying in the U.K., my colleague Timio Colistro wrote a great post about applying to a university in the United Kingdom.

But nothing can replace walking through a campus – being ‘on the ground’ – touring classrooms and facilities, and talking to people who work and learn there. So without further ado, let me take you on a whirlwind tour of campuses, providing snapshot impressions of my experiences there.

Royal Holloway, University of London

Despite my exhaustion, having just stepped off a plane at Heathrow, I was pleasantly surprised by Royal Holloway’s 135-acre campus in Egham, Surrey, on the outskirts of London. I felt both welcomed and inspired by the combination of majestic old and innovative new architecture and surrounding landscaped green spaces. Royal Holloway is known for strong programs in Arts and Humanities, with unique course of study in information security.

King’s College London

Being so close to the heart of the city, I enjoyed the buzzing energy of King’s College London. Their facilities are dotted around London on five different sites, so if it’s a campus feel you’re looking for, this isn’t the place. Having said that, they are a world-renowned institution with an excellent array of programs (like many schools on this list) with a strong tradition of research in programs such as health sciences and law.

University College London

UCL is in my favourite part of the city, just north of Russel Square and the iconic British Museum. How can you not feel smart surrounded by all that history and knowledge? I walked leisurely around the site with the most contained campus feel of the inner London universities I visited; the majority of its buildings and some residences are situated in about six contiguous city blocks. It feels like London’s version of NYU.

London School of Economics

Still in the beating heart of the city, I found LSE’s campus tightly nestled into buildings clustered around a four-block radius just east of Covent Garden. What it lacks in sprawling spaces it more than makes up for in an inspiring intellectual energy that I assume stems from all that brain power in one place. Another great aspect of the LSE campus is its proximity to great sites of both art (the West End, Covent Garden) and ideas (Inns at Temple Court).

Camberwell College of the Arts, University of the Arts London

I loved the big bright studios, extensive printmaking facilities and historic letter press studio at this smaller arts college, situated in leafy Camberwell in South London. It’s a noticeably tightly knit supportive community, if my interactions with staff and students are any indication. A brand new facility will open in 2017 to provide state of the art studio and exhibition space for students.

Queen Mary, University of London

I really liked this surprisingly tranquil gem of a campus in London’s Mile End area, bordered by the Regent’s Canal. I was impressed by the mix of old and new architecture dotted by lovely outdoor spaces and boats along the canal. It also boasts the world’s largest academic health sciences centre. Combined with an offering of great programs of study, this campus is a great London option.

Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London

I have been in and out of King’s Cross train and tube station a lot over the years, and for most of that time, it’s been surrounded by construction. So, I was pleasantly surprised to walk north of the station through brand new commercial development to the newly renovated (and award-winning) restoration of the Granary Building that houses Central Saint Martins. It certainly makes for a unique and funky setting to inspire the artist’s imagination where you can study visual arts including theatre and dance.

Selwyn College, University of Cambridge

Full disclosure here: Selwyn College is my alma mater. So, I’ll tell you why I chose Selwyn for my studies in Cambridge: I loved – and still love – the campus. Nineteenth-century (considered new-ish in Cambridge) red brick buildings – a chapel, the master’s lodge, the dining hall, residences and tutors’ studies – surround a traditional and well-manicured quad. And I really like the people, who manage to be both unpretentious and inspiring, like the college itself.

Pembroke College, University of Cambridge

SMUS alumnus Keilor Totz recently completed his undergraduate degree as a Blyth Scholar at Pembroke, so it was an obvious choice for a visit. This college, Cambridge’s third oldest, was established in the 14th century. It did not seem vast when I approached it from the street, but once inside the quad, its buildings and grounds revealed the development over the centuries, turning one corner after another to reveal another quad or stunning garden.

Durham University

A few hours north of London by train, I arrived in the achingly quaint town of Durham. The university’s main campus is just south of the imposing Durham Cathedral and castle environs; it famously touts its relationship with Harry Potter, being a prime location for the film series. It was fun to walk the same cloistered courtyards as Harry, Ron and Hermione! I enjoyed staying in Hatfield College, one of the university’s residential colleges in the old town near its historic centre.

University of York

This campus is the most modern of all that I visited (established in 1963); it reminded me of a similar generation of university here in Canada, such as UVic or Simon Fraser. It has a stunning east campus extension with new residences and innovative study spaces (floating study pods, anyone?). I loved the feel of this campus; it is welcoming and full of energetic engaged students and scholars. York has a wide range of strong programs in all subject areas; most notably it has world renowned biology faculty specializing in the study of tropical diseases.

Newcastle University

Newcastle was once a major ship-building port, surrounded by coal mining towns. It has since reinvented itself as a centre of innovation in science, technology and commerce. It is renowned for its friendliness, which I can attest to first-hand. I found the university itself an easily walkable mix of old and new, with the vast majority of its facilities within a four-block radius of the city’s commercial centre. There’s a great energy about this city and its namesake university; Newcastle University is comprehensive and research focused.


If you are thinking of studying in the UK, ample resources are available to help you narrow down the choice of programs and institutions. This list represents a small sample of schools across the UK that have great programs and inviting campuses. I cannot recommend enough that a visit to a campus where you’d hope to study can be the one thing that’ll clinch the deal.

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Ruth McGhee
Ruth McGhee is a University Counsellor at St. Michaels University School.

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