Back to Britain – Highlights of the University Tour

British Universities

Back again in England over the winter, but this time in the north country, courtesy of the British Council. What most universities in the North of England emphasize, aside from academics, are the affordability of its cities and towns, as well as their friendliness, distinct culture, and heritage. In between the great cities, we saw castles, mountains, beaches, pastures and moors – and lots of sheep. What follows are a few notes from the nine schools we visited. All feature a wide range of areas of study, although I only have room for a few academic highlights here.

NEWCASTLE: We started in Newcastle, just a short trip from the Scottish border, and traveled south. Newcastle is actually closer to Edinburgh than to London, but a three-hour high-speed trip from Euston Station to Newcastle was comfortable, fast and easy. Plus, my colleague and I made friends with a local couple who directed us to the best restaurant in the city.

The weather was warm and sunny. In fact, except for an hour or two of rain in Manchester, I had little use for my umbrella during the trip. Newcastle is a surprisingly lovely city on the banks of the River Tyne. It’s a place of history, art, football (soccer), and a Sunday outdoor market at the river where we ate a traditional fish and chips lunch. It’s also home to two universities, the aptly named Newcastle University and also Northumbria University, as in the county of Northumberland where the city is situated.

The two universities are located virtually next to each other, creating quite a college town. Newcastle is more of a liberal arts university; Northumbria more pre-professional.  Newcastle emphasized that it is a large school with a small school experience through its “customer service attitude”  featuring mentoring and a social conscience. Among its many programs are marine science, medicine, business management, psychology and pharmacy. Northumbria emphasized getting students jobs with work placements in every program. It also noted that it is known for its sports program and design and architecture, and has just completed building a new university library. A feature is the absence of general education requirements; students move straight into their areas of study.

DURHAM: Durham University, the third oldest university in the United Kingdom,  is just a 45 minute drive from the Newcastle airport and was one of the two universities on the visit that felt most like a U.S. liberal arts college.  Situated in the city of Durham at the steps of 11thCentury Durham Castle (a World Heritage Site), the university emphasized its largest department – archeology; in fact, Durham houses the largest archaeology department in the country. The highlight of our visit was listening to a professor tell the story of the Scottish Soldiers Project, unraveling a centuries-old mystery as to why the remains of Scottish prisoners were entombed in Durham. You can read about it at

LEEDS: Chris Pine studied for a bit at the University of Leeds during his undergraduate education, but the real highlights of the university in Leeds, a financial center of England of just over 700,000, are its food science programs and design. We enjoyed a detailed tour of the School of Design by its director, and saw how much the education and facilities lie in the forefront of fashion technology. Of course, students can also study fashion design and textile design and fashion marketing. Internship or placement, as it is called, opportunities include at Burberry and Net-a-Porter.

SHEFFIELD (two hours from London by train – the fourth largest city in England): The city of Sheffield, we were told, is known for its music scene. Documentary filmmaking is a popular program at Sheffield Hallam University, which has heavily invested in new facilities in the past five years. Sheffield Hallam is an “applied” university that features media arts and communication and programs in hospitality, tourism, food and nutrition, and even airline and airport management. We learned about – and sampled – a variety of cheeses, including one that was vegan – and toured its industrial kitchens.

Just down the road is the University of Sheffield, backing onto Peak District National Park and featuring faculties, or departments, in science, engineering, medicine, dentistry, health, arts and humanities and social sciences. This city campus boasts a students’ union, the social hub of campus run by students, and three main libraries. Staff say that it is the most international school in the UK, and our American tour guide, a graduate student in international relations, could not have been more enthusiastic about his experience on campus.

MANCHESTER: This is the city that birthed the industrial revolution and the suffragette movement and now hosts a fan rivalry between two football clubs – Manchester United and Manchester City. It’s also a city of museums (some on the university campus) and theaters  and restaurants with an airport just 20 minutes away. The emphasis on our tour was in the English (Lord Byron was born in Manchester), American Studies, Creative Writing, Management and Theater Departments. Eight current and past prime ministers and presidents were educated at the University of Manchester.

CHESTER: Chester is a walled city founded by the Roman Empire, and the university, which had a liberal arts-college feel, is the 10tholdest higher education institution in the United Kingdom. Experiential learning is emphasized with all second years doing a five-week experiential placement. The University of Chester is a teaching institution. The quaint and charming city center is just a short walk from campus; one of its features  is the new Storyhouse, a theater, cinema, library, community hub and restaurant.

LIVERPOOL: Yes, we stayed at the Hard Day’s Night Hotel, and I have never seen so much Beatles memorabilia in one place! The university we visited was the pre-professional John Moore’s University, proudly noting and showing us its maritime engineering and sports and exercise science programs. Staff at the university have worked with elite athletes like the cyclist, Chris Froome, a four-time winner of the Tour de France. Among the university’s research projects is studying the relationship between exercise and chronic disease.

We ended our visit by taking the high-speed train back to London. Then off to a quiet dinner with a few colleagues at Brasserie Max in the Covent Garden Hotel followed by a flight home to the States the next morning.