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June 14, 2016

Which British city has the most universities? And what's the largest city without any?

By Jonn Elledge

How many universities are there in London? There are the big names, of course: KCL, UCL, LSE. Technically, these are all part of the federated “University of London”; in practice, though, they generally act, and are treated, as individual institutions.

Then there are the less world-famous bits of the university: the School of Oriental & African Studies, for example, whose bar was once famous for the overwhelming smell of pot; the Royal Academy of Music; Birkbeck.

There are a fair few universities that aren’t part of the University of London (Middlesex, Greenwich, London Met, Imperial College, which seceded in 2007). There’s the private Regent’s University London. There are even foreign institutions with outposts in London – Notre Dame, Schiller International, Hult International Business School – but the government doesn’t count them so we probably shouldn’t either.

If we stick to the figures produced by regulator Hefce, there are a total of – drumroll, please – 40 universities in London. Which sounds like quite a lot. By way of comparison, there are only 43 in the whole of Australia, and that’s including a couple of international ones.

But how does it compare to other British cities? With the help of some data from our trusty sidekicks at the Centre for Cities, let’s find out.

Which UK cities have the most universities?

First a word about the data. The CfC gathers data on the 63 largest cities in Britain, from London (pop: 9.8m all the way down to Worthing (pop: 107,000). As to what counts as a university, we’re only counting the main campuses, not smaller branch campuses. Last but not least, we’re not counting the Open University, which is technically based in Milton Keynes, but as a distance learning institution doesn’t have a campus in the traditional sense.

You can probably guess which of those has the most universities: we’ve already covered it. London is so far out ahead of the others that it breaks the scale of the chart, and we’ve had to fudge it.

Scotland’s historic reputation for education is clearly on show, and the country’s two largest cities are in joint second place, with six universities a piece. The Northern Powerhouse is also putting in a good showing, with two universities in Sheffield, four in Liverpool, and a whopping five each in Manchester and Leeds.

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As you’d expect, though, these are all big cities: the smallest is Belfast, and that’s still got a population of 475,000. (It’s also a capital city, which probably helps when collecting universities.)

So what happens if you take population into account?

Which UK cities have the most universities per head?

Before running the numbers on this I sort of assumed the answer would be Edinburgh (because it has six universities, but isn’t that big), or London (which is that big but has, as I may have mentioned, loads of universities).

This just goes to show why you should never trust guesswork: even with 40 universities, London is so huge that it’s nowhere near the top of the “universities per head” league table. (It ranks 26th out of our 63 cities.)

The chart is dominated by small cities with more than one university. Cambridge, for example, only has two universities (the famous one, and Anglia Ruskin); but it also only has 129,000 people. It’s a similar story with Dundee, Oxford, York, Aberdeen…

Indeed, two of these cities only have one university (Ipswich and Exeter): it’s just that they’re so small they still have more universities per head than most of the big cities.

What is the largest UK city without a university?

So we’ve done cities with a lot of universities. What about those without any?

Here we fall – as we always do, eventually – into questions of definition. The Centre for Cities counts all these places as separate cities (“primary urban areas”) in its database.  But to varying degrees, more than half of them are adjuncts to other places. Wigan is a borough of Greater Manchester, and Birkenhead a suburb of Liverpool: both are probably counted as parts of a bigger conurbation more often than not.

Wakefield has more independence, but is still likely to be included in any Leeds city deal that may one day come to pass. Even Chatham, here representing the Medway Towns more broadly, is on some definitions an outer outpost of metropolitan London.

Then there’s the question of what counts, technically, as a university. The biggest city here that’s definitely its own place is Milton Keynes. So that might be the largest city in Britain without a university, but only if you don’t count the Open University, which is based there but isn’t a campus university. In the same way, Blackpool is home to Blackpool & the Fylde College, which isn’t a university, but does offer university courses. Southend doesn’t have a university, but does have a University of Essex campus; Chatham has a campus shared by the universities of Greenwich and Kent.

As ever, then, it depends how you count. If you don’t count branch campuses, it’s Southend. If you do, it’s Wakefield, but only if you count it as a city.

If you’re going to be really strict about it, it’s Mansfield. 

So, now you know.

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