The UK is home to some of the oldest universities in the world. It houses prestigious universities like Oxford University and Cambridge University, as well as many other traditional universities. Many of the oldest UK universities are considered ancient, dating back to the 11th, 13th and 15th centuries. Just for some perspective, this is when the likes of Joan of Arc and Leonardo Da Vinci roamed the earth. Some of the UK’s universities are even older than Shakespeare! Keep reading to discover which are the 20 oldest universities in the UK.

The 20 oldest universities in the UK

1. Oxford University – 1096

Not only is the University of Oxford the oldest UK university, but it’s also the second-oldest in the world. It dates back to 1096, 30 years after the legendary Battle of Hastings! You can find out more about the world-renowned institution in our Oxford University guide.

2. Cambridge University – 1209

The second-oldest university in the UK is the world-famous University of Cambridge. Since its founding in 1209, Cambridge University has welcomed the likes of Sir Issac Newton, Alan Turing, and Sylvia Plath as students!

3. University of St Andrews – 1413

A good two centuries after the infamous Oxbridge unis, the University of St Andrews in Fife is the third-oldest university in the UK. It’s also Scotland’s first-ever university, with a motto – “Ever to Excel” from Homer’s Iliad. It’s one of the universities that contributed to the Scottish Enlightenment era, a century of various intellectual achievements.

4. University of Glasgow – 1451

Shortly following the founding of St Andrews, the University of Glasgow was founded. It’s among the four ancient universities in Scotland and one of the oldest universities in the UK. It’s a Russell Group University and was the stomping ground of Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

university of glasgow is one of the oldest unis in the uk
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5. Aberdeen University – 1495

Aberdeen University is the third-oldest university in Scotland and the fifth-oldest university in the UK. It has an incredible history, which can be viewed in multiple short videos on the university’s history webpage. It’s mainly known for its contribution to medical research, among other subjects related to science and medicine.

6. University of Edinburgh – 1583

Currently in the top 15 of the 2023 QS university world rankings, the University of Edinburgh is reputable in the academic world. As one of the oldest universities in the UK, it has 22 schools, with its oldest department for English Literature in the UK. It’s also the inspirational site where Sherlock Holmes was born!

7. St George’s University, University of London – 1733

Following the University of Oxford, St George’s University is the second-oldest university to formally teach doctors in the UK. It’s now part of the University of London, joining the educational hub in 1836.

8. Royal Veterinary College, University of London – 1791

Based in Camden, the Royal Veterinary College is the leading institution for aspiring vets. It delivers both undergraduate and postgraduate training in veterinary courses, with many accredited by the Royal Society of Biology.

9. Royal Academy of Music, University of London – 1822

Britain’s first conservatoire – a specialist training school for music and performing arts, the Royal Academy of Music has been going since the early 19th century. It taught world-famous superstars Annie Lennox and Sir Elton John, among others!

10. Birkbeck, University of London – 1823

Named after George Birkbeck, the university was founded on the night that he publicly spoke to thousands about the importance of educating working London people. It was the first time local artisans and craftspeople could gain education in science, economics and more. Birkbeck remains at the heart of the community today, holding evening classes to allow students to work during the day.

11. University of Manchester – 1824

Next on our list of the oldest universities in the UK, the University of Manchester is among the most highly-ranked Russell Group universities and the largest single-campus university in the UK. It was formerly known as the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology (UMIST), but merged with Victoria University of Manchester in 2004. Many local institutions belong to the University of Manchester, including John Ryland’s Library, Whitworth Art Gallery, Contact Theatre and more.

12. University College London (UCL) – 1826

One of the top universities in the capital city, UCL is a leading institution in the UK and worldwide. It opened the first women’s hall of residence in the UK in 1882, paving the way for great things to come. UCL is also the second-largest university in the UK when measured by total, and postgraduate enrolment.

UCL main building
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13. King’s College London – 1829

Founded by a Royal Charter in the first half of the 19th century, King’s College London became one of the University of London’s two founding colleges. Beyond being known for humanities and international affairs, it’s also a leading research facility, which contributed to research into the development of mobiles, TV and radar.

14. Durham University – 1832

Plans for Durham University were drawn up by the Tudor King, Henry VIII. It’s now one of the oldest universities in the UK still in operation and often described as one of the most beautiful. Its three faculties are science and social sciences, art and humanities, and health, so the perfect place for students wanting to study in these fields.

15. University of London – 1836

Claiming to be the non-religious alternative to Oxbridge, the University of London was the first to exclude religious requirements. It also claims to be the birthplace of long-distance learning, making it one of the oldest universities in the UK, but also one of the most forward-thinking.

university of london
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16. University of Westminster – 1838

As one of the oldest universities in the UK, the University of Westminster was the first polytechnic university in London, and among the first in the UK. Its other accolades and historical facts include organising the first marathon, offering the first degrees in Photography, and opening of the first public photographic portrait studio in Europe.

17. York St John University – 1841

York St John, known as YSJ, first opened with only one student! Can you imagine having the whole university dedicated to your education? But it didn’t gain university status until 2006 so that probably changes things. York St John University is now among the oldest universities in the UK, counting back to that single student – Edward Preston Cordukes, a local from York!

18. University of South Wales – 1841

The campuses of South Wales University are spread across Cardiff, Newport and Pontypridd as it welcomes so many students. It’s the second-largest university in Wales, and its origins make it the oldest university in Wales. Despite this, many believe Aberystwyth University, founded in 1872, is the oldest university in Wales. The debate remains based on their university status and mergers, where the University of South Wales was given university status in 2013.

19. Norwich University of the Arts – 1845

Art, design, media and architecture are the key focus of education at Norwich University of the Arts. Based in Norwich, the university resides in England’s first UNESCO City of Literature. It’s definitely the place to be for creative thinkers.

20. The Glasgow School of Art – 1845

Another artistic school on this list, the Glasgow School of Art is the 20th oldest university in the UK. Its origins lie in design, born out of the mingling of local designers and artists in the city. It’s also recognised as one of Europe’s best visual creative institutions…pretty impressive.

So there you have the 20 oldest universities in the UK. While many are in London, there are historic ancient universities dotted around all countries and cities in the UK. The list contains well-known traditional universities such as Oxbridge, but also some you may not have heard of! So why not check out how they rank with our list of the universities with the best student life.