13 British Universities and the Subjects You Probably Didn’t Know They Specialised In
Although the usual suspects tend to dominate in British higher education rankings, some universities buck the trend.
These places have managed to build up a specialism, allowing them to compete on an even footing with the traditional top-flight institutions in Britain and, sometimes, the rest of the world.
Whether it’s by beating the big boys at their own game, or running programmes that are not on offer elsewhere and becoming the go-to place for a particular discipline, here’s a list of some British unis which have managed to carve out a niche for themselves, which will hopefully be a reminder that excellence in research and teaching can be found all across the country.
1. Queen Mary University of London
With over 40,000 dentists practising in the UK and at least one dentist’s surgery in every city, town and village in the country, dentistry is a popular profession, so it is odd that several top British universities, including the Oxbridge duo, do not offer it as a subject at all.
And so if you’re looking for the best places to cut your teeth in the Dentistry sector, you may find it unusual that one of the top ranking unis is Queen Mary University. The reason for this, however, is well-known to anyone of a medical bent: QMU is home to St Bartholomew’s Hospital/London School of Medicine and Dentistry, a.k.a. Barts.
Barts was founded in 1123 and is one of the world’s most prestigious medical schools. The School of Dentistry was rated number one in Britain by the Complete University Guide.
2. City University
It’s no secret to those in the legal world, but outsiders might be surprised to learn that City University, formerly Northampton Polytechnic Institute, contains what is considered perhaps the UK’s best law school barring Oxbridge.
Its Legal Practice Course is the only one in London to be rated ‘Excellent’ by the Law Society, and its Graduate Diploma in Law (a qualification for non-Law graduate students) is also very prestigious. This is due largely to the 2001 merger between City and the Inns of Court School of Law, now City Law School. The Inns of Court is the inner sanctum of the traditional elite law firms in England, and its law school used to be the obligatory destination for Law graduates from around the country who wished to make it in the capital as barristers.
3. University of Westminster
Journalism and Broadcasting
Awarded university status in 1992, the University of Westminster has campuses located in Central and West London. UoW has several areas of strength, but most notable is its School of Media, Arts and Design, which incorporates the Communication and Media Research Institute, rated in the top 40 in the world by QS.
Journalists who trained at Westminster include Jon Ronson, author of the acclaimed book-turned-film The Men Who Stare at Goats, and several newsreaders on TV channels such as Sky News and the BBC News.
4. Abertay University
Game Design and Production
Abertay University lives to some extent in the shadow of older sibling Dundee University, but it has a big claim to fame – Abertay houses Europe’s most sought-after dedicated computer game design degree.
Scotland’s East Coast is a major centre for the gaming industry: among other big names, Rockstar Games, creators of the third highest selling computer game of all time (Grand Theft Auto V), was founded in Dundee.
The Game Design and Production course at Abertay works closely with corporations such as Sony Entertainment and Ubisoft to provide coaching in all aspects of creating the next big video game, from level design to artwork to business and management.
5. King’s College London/University of Bradford
War Studies/Peace Studies
KCL’s War Studies department is the most prestigious of any purely academic institution, and it counts at least one world leader and several defence ministers and generals among its alumni. It teaches various modules from naval strategy to counter-terrorism.
But it has a rival: the University of Bradford, which runs the UK’s only dedicated Peace Studies degree, where students can study non-violence and international development.
To foster understanding and dialogue between the future military and pro-peace policy professionals, the two departments stage an annual football game, which is appropriately named the Tolstoy Cup, after the Russian author’s famous work, War and Peace. In case you were wondering, it’s the fearsome London team who tend to come out on top, despite Bradford’s best efforts!
6. University of East Anglia
American Studies, which takes in the history, literature and politics of the USA, is a popular subject for those considering a career in the US. The Norwich-based UEA is, ironically, the UK’s most easterly university, based in one of the furthest parts of the UK from the States, but its American Studies department is consistently rated in the top five in the country.
Its modules focus on diverse areas, from the Civil Rights movement to comic books. The four-year undergrad degree includes a compulsory year studying abroad, with a choice of 48 unis in the USA and Canada to choose from. The prestigious Chapel Hill campus at the University of North Carolina is a popular choice, or alternatively students can spend a year chillaxing on the beach at the University of Hawai’i.
7. University of Southampton
Marine Biology naturally tends to thrive best in seaside locations, which give students the best opportunity to study their subject in the field. So it’s perhaps no big surprise that one of the best regarded Marine Biology programmes is in the South Coast city of Southampton.
The city is home to the National Oceanography Centre and so offers the perfect place for students to get to grips with research on marine ecology. Other areas of study include aquaculture, zoology and chemistry. Marine studies students have to grapple with a lot of complex mathematics and biology, but the reward is fieldwork at sea, with dolphins and seals swimming alongside the boat during class.
8. University of Reading
People may not always think of farmers having studied their trade in a higher education setting, but in today’s Britain with farming under increasing pressure, a degree in Agriculture is extremely useful if you want to get ahead.
Reading University is rated as the 10th best place to study Agriculture globally by QS, ahead of all other British universities. Modules include Crop Agronomy, in which students ‘have the opportunity to develop their agronomic skills by growing a commercially relevant crop in competition with other students.’ Modules are a mixture of Business, Biology as well as Economics and Animal Studies. The course has a 97% employment rate for graduates.
9. Keele University
Keele University is located in a quiet village in Staffordshire, a far cry from CSI Miami. Nevertheless, this small uni is ranked number one in the UK for Forensic Science by the Complete University Guide. But if you are a fan of crime thrillers and are thinking of pursuing a career in this field, be warned, it is definitely not for the faint-hearted!
The Keele Forensics syllabus includes a fieldtrip to the ‘body farm’ at the University of Tennessee, a facility for studying the decomposition of the human body, and students will be expected to master techniques such as forensic entomology, i.e. using insect surveys to determine the age of a corpse.
10. Aberystwyth University
Aberystwyth is one of Britain’s most scenic universities, and the Welsh uni praises the ‘stunning coastal location with miles of unspoiled beaches to gallop on’ as one of the big attractions of its Equine Studies programme.
But those interested in a career dealing with horses will mainly be attracted by the fact that Aberystwyth is ranked first in the UK for this subject area, and has top-notch facilities including an Olympic standard indoor riding yard. Modules include Breeding and Stud Management, and Horsemastership. Going for a hack along the beach sure beats 9:00 AM lectures.
11. Queen’s University, Belfast
Queen’s is too often forgotten about by many mainland Brits due to its location over in the Emerald Isle, but it has some very strong subjects that make it easily worth crossing the Irish Sea for, not least one of Britain’s most consistently high-ranking Creative Writing departments.
There is a dedicated Masters programme and also a BA in English with Creative Writing on offer. Queen’s has a distinguished pedigree in this field, with Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney counted among its alumni. The focus of the programme is on fiction and scriptwriting, but also includes poetry, and most modules are taught by professional writers, often literary prizewinners.
12. Lancaster University
Space and Planetary Physics
This northwestern uni based in the small city of Lancaster is, surprisingly, home to one of the UK’s most respected Astrophysics departments. The department of Space and Planetary Physics is involved in research using data from the Hubble Telescope and the Cassini probe at Saturn, as well as helping to run superDARN, a research base for astronomers in Antarctica. Lancaster has a particular speciality in ‘space weather’: it runs the AuroraWatch service which forecasts the northern lights over the UK.
13. Durham University
Durham is a top-flight university and so it would be expected to have one of the UK’s best Physics departments, but Durham goes above and beyond expectations, as it was recently voted one of the most influential centres of scientific research on the planet.
Durham was the only UK university to feature in a Thomson-Reuters list of the most influential scientific minds in the field of Space Science, and it even came out above NASA in this area. Its resident academics include David Alexander, one of the world’s foremost experts on black holes.
Just goes to show, doesn’t it? What constitutes a ‘good’ university depends entirely on what you are interested in.