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Top Universities in London: UCL or Imperial?

Top Universities in London: UCL or Imperial? main image

As a city, London has plenty to offer, and that includes universities. If you’re looking to study in England’s capital then good news, you’re spoilt for choice. However, when it comes to choosing the best university in the city, two London universities in particular stand out from the crowd. 

University College London (UCL) and Imperial College London are the two highest-ranked London universities in the QS World University Rankings® 2021, beating 18 other universities from the city and ranking in the top 10 in the world, a feat both universities have managed consistently.

This year, Imperial climbed one place and overtook UCL to rank eighth in the world, while UCL dropped two places to rank tenth this year. But is this enough to mean that Imperial is right for you?

Choosing between the top universities in London  

Rather than relying on the world ranking alone, it might be more useful to consider how these two universities perform for the subject you wish to study. While UCL operates across the full academic spectrum, Imperial specializes primarily in science, engineering, management and medicine, and also has a leading business school. So, if your area of interest is one of the arts, humanities or social sciences disciplines, you should probably apply to UCL. Alongside world-leading departments of the arts and sciences, UCL also boasts a top-rated architecture school and one of the UK’s best art schools, the Slade School of Art.

So far, so simple... But, in fact, there are numerous academic areas where University College London and Imperial are both near the top of the tree, so for students in these areas the decision is considerably tougher. We’ll look at these subjects in closer detail in a moment. Before then, to get a fuller idea of whether you’d be best suited to UCL or Imperial, here’s a quick overview of the key similarities and differences, including comparisons of tuition fees, student population, international reputation and more:


UCL (University College London)

Imperial College London

QS World University Rankings® 2021

Ranked 10th in the world in 2021

Ranked 13th in the world by academics and 19th by employers

46th for faculty/student ratio

99th for research impact (citations per faculty member)

82nd in the world for percentage of international faculty members, and 18th for international students

Ranked eighth in the world in 2019

Ranked 21st in the world by academics and ninth by employers

30th for faculty/student ratio

88th for research impact (citations per faculty member)

47th in the world for percentage of international faculty members, and 14th for international students

Subject strengths*

12th in the world for arts & humanities

Joint 39th for engineering & technology

Joint eighth for life sciences & medicine

Joint 52nd for natural sciences

Joint 25th for social sciences & management

Joint 193rd in the world for arts & humanities

Seventh for engineering & technology

11th for life sciences & medicine

Ninth for natural sciences

Joint 51st for social sciences & management


Main campus is located in Bloomsbury, central London

Main campus is in South Kensington in west London

Student community

Around 42,100 students in total

48 percent international students

Around 18,000 students

Of these, over 6,000 are international (33 percent).

Tuition fees (2018/19)

UK and EU undergraduates: £9,250 per year (about €10,365)

International students: £19,720 – 28,610 (~US$24,800-35,980) annually for most undergraduate programs

Medicine: TBC (see UCL prospectus page for more information)

UK and EU undergraduates: £9,250 per year (about €10,400)

International students: £30,000 – 31,750 (~US$37,725 – 39,925) annually for most undergraduate programs

Medicine: £44,000 (about US$55,330) per year for international students

*Based on the broad subject areas in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2019.


QS World University Rankings® 2021

As mentioned earlier, Imperial is now ranked above UCL in the QS World University Rankings® 2021, ranking eighth to UCL’s tenth. 

UCL is not to be ignored, however, as it also scores consistently well, ranking firmly within the world’s top 100 in every performance indicator used to compile the rankings, and outranking Imperial in one of the most important out of the six indicators, academic reputation.

UCL markets itself as London’s global university, and it does indeed have a high proportion of international students, ranking 18th in the world on this indicator. However, Imperial has an even higher proportion and ranks 14th on this measure.

Imperial also offers a higher proportion of international faculty members (47th in the world, above UCL’s 82nd). Despite this advantage in our rankings, both Imperial and UCL should appeal to students keen to join a truly international community of students and academics.

In terms of reputation, UCL beats Imperial among academics, while Imperial has a slightly stronger reputation among graduate employers, and also offers a slightly better student/faculty ratio.

Subject strengths  

Looking firstly at the broad subject areas of the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2020, Imperial College London achieves the strongest score for a subject area, and is ranked seventh in the world for engineering and technology. Both universities make the global top 15 for medicine and life sciences, and, as you might expect, UCL scores significantly higher than Imperial in arts and humanities (12th, in contrast to Imperial’s joint 193rd).

You can get a closer insight into how UCL and Imperial compare for different disciplines in the table below.

UCL and Imperial in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2020




Accounting & finance



Anatomy & physiology












Art & design



Biological sciences



Business & management






Classics & ancient history



Computer science & information systems






Development studies



Earth & marine sciences






Education & training



Engineering (chemical)



Engineering (civil)



Engineering (electrical)



Engineering (mechanical)



English language & literature



Environmental sciences












Library & information management






Materials science









Modern languages









Physics & astronomy









Social policy & administration



Sports-related subjects






Theology, divinity & religious studies




Imperial College London


UCL and Imperial are both located in the center of London, close to dynamic and culture-rich areas full of museums, galleries, theaters and more. Even so, there are some differences in location that will have an effect on your student experience. 

While Imperial’s South Kensington location is central relative to the sprawling immensity of the Greater London Area, it is actually a little way to the west of central London proper. Not that this is a bad thing: with Harrods, Hyde Park, and the Science Museum and Natural History Museum for neighbors, Imperial is based in one of London’s most attractive and desirable postcodes.

UCL’s Bloomsbury campus is a small enclave of calm amid London’s bustling center. Roughly equidistant from Soho and King’s Cross, and walking distance from Chinatown and Piccadilly Circus, you couldn’t be much closer to the heart of the city.

One of UCL’s main student halls of residence is in nearby Camden Town, which is renowned for its lively social scene, famous market and live music, and UCL’s central campus is next to the British Library, one of the most important and comprehensive research libraries in the world.

Meanwhile, Imperial’s main halls of residence are based near to its campus in West London, a well-heeled part of town with a slightly less frenetic atmosphere. So, Imperial’s location may be slightly more appealing to those who fancy some respite from the crowds, especially since it’s just a stone’s throw away from the large green spaces of Hyde Park. 

London itself was ranked number one in the latest QS Best Student Cities ranking, thanks to its excellent scores in every indicator (apart from affordability!).

Student community  

UCL is one of the constituent colleges of the University of London, and one advantage of its Bloomsbury location is that it’s based in the middle of a huge student community. The main campus backs out onto a courtyard shared by SOAS and Birkbeck College, and the adjacent University of London Union is a hub of activity, from societies and student politics to live music and social events.

UCL’s total student population of 42,100 students puts it at the larger end of UK universities. When the student populations of the other nearby University of London colleges are factored in, its extended student community ranks among the largest in the world.

Imperial is slightly more self-contained, with a total student population less than half the size of UCL’s at around 18,000. Imperial was previously a member of the University of London (it became formally independent in 2007), and its students are still integrated into the city’s wider student community, but its location and independent status mean it also retains a certain separateness, with a slightly more intimate community feel.

Hammersmith Hospital

Tuition fees 

The UK government increased tuition fees for home/EU students commencing their undergraduate studies in autumn 2017, meaning these students will now pay £9,250 per year (about €10,400). There are, so far, no changes to the amount EU students pay following the UK’s EU referendum. EU students also remain entitled to the same financial aid as home students in the 2019/20 academic year and for the duration of their course, even after the UK officially leaves the EU. 

For international students, little has changed – international tuition fees at UK universities were already among the highest in the world. At undergraduate level, international students at UCL can expect to pay £19,720 to £28,610 for most programs (equaling roughly US$24,800-35,980).

UCL has implemented ‘fixed fees’ for international undergraduates commencing their studies in 2018, meaning your tuition fees will stay the same in each year of your course (this does not apply to those studying medicine, however).

Imperial charges international students £30,000 – 31,750 (roughly US$37,725-39,925) annually for most of its undergraduate and postgraduate courses, with medicine coming in at £44,000 (about US$55,330) per year.

Science and engineering degrees at both universities are often three-year programs with an optional fourth year, leading to MSc or MEng qualifications. Undergraduate-level arts, humanities and social sciences degrees at UCL are nearly always three years in length. 

Financial aid 

While those overseas tuition fees might make your eyes water, the good news is there are funding opportunities available for both universities. UCL’s website offers a scholarship finder tool, allowing you to search for scholarships matching your subject and demographics.

Imperial offers one of the most generous bursary schemes in the country for home students – the Imperial Bursary. It also has a scholarship search tool, which provides you with more personalized results the more detail you provide.

As well as looking on the official university websites, there are many external scholarships you could consider, including those funded by the UK government. One example is the British Chevening Scholarships, which aim to develop global leaders by providing full or part funding for graduate programs in any subject. You can browse other UK scholarships here.

This article was originally published in December 2013. It is updated after every QS World University Rankings launch, most recently in June 2020.

You can read about more of the top universities in London here

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Stephen O, Suppawat B & 74 others saved this
Written by Julia Gilmore
Julia is the Assistant Editor for TopUniversities, publishing articles for students and graduates across the world. A native Londoner, she holds an MSc in Marketing Strategy & Innovation from Cass Business School and a BA in Classical Studies & English from Newcastle University.

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I am an international student doing a bachelor's at UCL Chemical Engineering, DO NOT WASTE YOUR PARENTS' HARD EARNED MONEY ON THIS UNIVERSITY. With the school fees hiking up to GBP26,000 per annum, I do not know what my parents are paying for:
(1) The quality of teaching is terrible; lecturers are teaching fellows who are simply not interested to be here and much less teaching.
(2) Lessons are only run from end September to end March, with winter break and summer break, exam study break taking up at least 5 months of a year. This means I pay GBP26,000 for 7 months of poor quality teaching.
(3) Lecturers went on strike this year, so another three thousand pounds paid for nothing.
(4) The majority of the QUESTIONS in my engineering exam paper is actually wrong. Yes, the questions were wrong.
It's hard to get any worse really.

hey, i am thinking about going to UCL...would you say that bad quality of teaching is unique to your depatment or i would experience it as well in Biotechnology?

Hi. I'm Erica Cabugon, currently studying Bachelor of Secondary Education Major in English, and I will graduate this coming March 2017. I am quiet interested in pursuing my masteral degree abroad. But I am also interested in taking another Bachelor degree in relation to business management.
Are there available full-scholarship that i can apply? What are the following steps to follow in order for me to apply in such scholarship? What are the paper requirements that i must submit? Thank you and God Speed. :)

Hello, I am a student from Greece (EU) willing to study at either UCL or Imperial during the season 2017-2018. However, I cannot afford the tuition fees. How can I get a student loan? Are there any criteria that I must fulfil in order to get one? Is the number of student loans provided unlimited?

Hi Konstantinos, to apply for a student loan in the UK, you'll need to download an application pack, possibly sending proof of your identity. You can find out more here. 

Hi.I am interested in studying in the UK.But when i checked the fees details i think so its very high.Is the fees provided here is true r not?

Hi Vishahan, this article was updated very recently, so the fees listed here should be correct. You may like to look for a scholarship to help with costs - we've listed scholarships to study in the UK here. Hope this helps. 

What a nice post.

I've made the decision... UCL, following my love IOE, MSc in Quantitative Research Methods. See you in October 2015.

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Thanks for this post. This will surely increase each school's students aspirations to be better in both academics and sports. Cost should always be an issue in college selection, though a fair number of students know about this. A recent survey of recent freshmen by researchers from UCLA found it is becoming a very big factor in their selection of alma mater. Colleges should provide scholarships and financial assistance to students especially those who are achievers both in academics and sports but are financially incapacitated.

London is definitely an ideal place if you want to make an academic career, or if you have an idea to take education abroad. You can also get all the translation services from this link.