It's not hard to find sources that say that the UK punches (punched?) above its weight in the research, and there're lots of people who want to go to the UK for work or study. We can see this in StackExchange questions as well - people often explicitly ask about doing PhDs in the UK.

Why is the UK so attractive to researchers & students? Presumably the availability of funding is a big deal, but as long as the UK is part of the EU, funding levels shouldn't be too different from the rest of Europe. It's possible the UK has high quality of life, but it's not like other EU countries do much worse in this area, in fact several outperform the UK. It's also possible that the UK simply has many more prestigious universities than the rest of the EU, and prestige attracts people; however I find it hard to believe that this is a major factor, especially at postgraduate level and beyond. The only other thing I can think of is that the country uses English as its primary language, but that should be less of a factor in academia since most academics can speak English (it is the language of academic communication after all).

  • 2
    Will there be one single definitive answer? If not, this degenerates into a discussion, opinion and worse, guesses.
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 9:19
  • This is probably true for students, much less for researchers. Students from countries which don't have a strong research environment emigrate to do a PhD, and they choose the country based on language, reputation and past experience of people they know. This is why former British colonies provide a large pool of PhD candidates, but to a lesser extent this is also true for people from former French colonies coming to France for their PhD.
    – Erwan
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 13:19
  • See also academia.stackexchange.com/questions/55792/… Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 13:41
  • In comparison to other countries I have been to, the UK is honestly not as xenophobic as you might be led to believe and is generally welcoming towards people from other cultures and countries who speak other languages and are bringing in outside knowledge and new ways of looking at things.
    – Tom
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 17:09
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    Voting to reopen because if this is opinion based, most questions would be opinion based too, e.g. "Why are most of the top universities American?" is going to depend on one's opinion of the word 'top', "Is it possible to study in China without knowing Chinese?" is going to depend on one's opinion of the word 'possible', etc. Plus, there're already good answers.
    – Allure
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 21:05

3 Answers 3


From what I have heard from students and academics in the UK there are a few key factors:

I think you may be undervaluing the effect of language. English is by far the most widely studied language and is the primary language of communication in academia. Students want to improve their English while they study. While universities in non-English speaking countries may teach in English and it is most likely possible to do research in English, day-to-day life can be isolating without knowing the local language, for example see here. It's also much less daunting to live in a country if you are already competent in the local language. Similarly for faculty, its much easier to work in a country where you're already fluent in the language rather than starting from scratch in a new language.

The UK is widely seen as welcoming and accepting of different nationalities and cultures. You could debate the extent that this is actually true, and it may be changing. It is certainly true at least of university cities such as Oxford and Cambridge as well as major cities such as London.

The UK is home to some of the best universities in the world in Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College are all in the top 10 (the rest being in the US - which also suggests a language effect). These universities are also widely known worldwide. Oxbridge in particular offers a certain prestige which attracts many people, mainly due to its history.

I don't think the UK is necessarily attractive to top academics, especially in STEM subjects. The cost of living is high, especially in cities such as London, Oxford, Cambridge and academics (especially junior academics) struggle to live in these cities. There has been a large push by Oxford and Cambridge to provide subsidised housing for staff in order to attract/retain staff. I know many top academics who have left the UK for the US.

I also don't think the UK is particularly extraordinary in terms of research funding.

In conclusion, I believe language, culture, and brand recognition are the main factors for making the UK attractive to students and academics. Although this is threatened by the cost of living and rising xenophobia. The outlook for research funding is also uncertain due to Brexit.

  • No one can dispute the fact that top UK universities are amazing. I just want to say this ranking you have linked to is a disgrace: look at at the "citation" score (30% of the total score): apparently the number one in the world is an obscure university in Iran! Even in Iran nobody would consider that place a top institute compared to other Iranian universities...
    – AlefSin
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 16:55
  • @AlefSin, I'm not a big fan of university rankings generally. Partly because they all suffer from such anomalies (QS gives similarly obscure results when sorted by citations per faculty for example). The Times list happens to be widely cited for what it's worth.
    – atom44
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 21:03

In Commonwealth countries, many people believe that Cambridge and Oxford are the only elite universities.


Based on anecdotal experiences, and things I’ve heard from students I know who study in the UK, these are the reasons people choose to study/research in the UK:

1) Most UK universities don’t ask applicants to take unnecessary and expensive exams in order to apply. I mean, I’ve seen some English programs in the United States asking for GMAT and TOEFL scores. This I think is absolutely ridiculous.

2) Building on the my previous point, not a lot of UK universities ask for application fees. I’ve only heard of Oxbridge doing this. Depending on where you are in the world, these application fees can be up to a month’s salary, and most people aren’t willing to risk so much money on a gamble. I know universities do this as a barrier to entry for unserious applicants, but in the end they end up deterring high calibre applicants who simply can’t afford to apply.

3) This point is reletive, but in general, top UK universities are on the whole cheaper than top fee paying universities in other parts of the world. It’s still a lot of money but I think you would agree that the difference between $20,000 and $40,000 is significant.

4) Because of the fact that the UK colonised a huge portion of the world, there is a huge representation of common wealth citizens, making it culturally diverse. So foreigners tend to be able to slip right into society without drawing too much attention. Of course, this is not the case for every town and county in the UK, but it’s a reality.

5) Another thing that I will add is it’s reputation; the UK has done a good job or marketing it’s educational system. It’s purely good branding on the government’s part, as education is one of their largest exports

However, I think this is changing. Fewer and fewer international students are applying to UK universities because of the immigration laws that have been put in place. Students are basically kicked out of the country two weeks after graduation.

  • When courses are taught in English, asking prospective students to prove a sufficient level of English is a good idea. I have had students say "can we write our psychology exam in French instead of English"? When the course is taught and examined in English, on the grounds that they did not write English very well...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 16:12
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    My point was that asking someone to take the TOEFL and GMAT is a bit excessive. Surely the TOEFL is enough to prove competence in English. Why then ask for the GMAT when the course has nothing to do with any form of advanced arithmetic?
    – Sule
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 16:36
  • @Solar Mike: In one of my US university graduate physics courses, the Chinese instructor and the rest of the students - all but me and one other (from Eastern Europe IIRC) would frequently have discussions in Chinese.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 17:22
  • @jamesqf We have 90 different nationalities on our campus, students often converse in their own language... BUT I ask you will the exams for that course you mention be in Chinese or English? If they will be in Chinese, do you think you will be at a disadvantage?
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 17:25
  • @Solar Mike: Since it was a physics course, not that much of a disadvantage. IIRC, I did get a A in the course :-)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 19:33

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