What is a Red Brick University Exactly?

26th July 2023 Sophia Rimmer Study

As you embark on the exciting journey of higher education, you may come across the term “red brick universities”. But what exactly are these institutions, how did they earn their distinctive name, and should they factor into your decision-making process when choosing where to study?

What is a red brick university, and how did the term come about?

A red brick university is a term used to describe a group of universities in the United Kingdom that attained autonomy during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Each institution is characterised by its red-brick buildings, which were a prominent campus architectural feature back in the Victorian era, first started with the University of Liverpool (though the University of Birmingham is the first to have received a Royal charter.)

During the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution brought significant transformations to Britain. Therefore, each red brick university prioritises applied subjects such as engineering and architecture. The aim was to equip graduates with the skills needed to meet the evolving demands of the economy.

The term “red brick university” also helped distinguish newer institutions from older and more established ones. These include Oxford and Cambridge, which were often referred to as “Ancient universities.”

What are the original red brick universities?

There are six original red brick universities, these include:

  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Bristol
  • University of Leeds
  • University of Liverpool
  • University of Manchester
  • University of Sheffield

What was the first red brick university?

Although the term “red brick university” is inspired by the Victoria Building at the University of Liverpool, boasting a red-brick architectural style, the University of Birmingham became the first to receive its Royal Charter in 1900, signifying its attainment of university independence. The University of Liverpool received university status in 1903.

This significant milestone allowed the University of Birmingham to enjoy greater autonomy and govern itself, marking a crucial step in its development as a distinguished academic institution. The attainment of the Royal Charter was a testament to the university’s commitment to providing accessible and high-quality education. Ultimately, this shaped the trajectory of other similar institutions in their pursuit of academic excellence and relevance to the changing needs of society during the Victorian era.

Red brick universities vs. Russell Group universities

No, they are not the same, although some overlap may exist.

Red brick universities refer to a specific group of UK universities founded in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Characterised by their red-brick buildings, they were established as part of the Victorian era’s efforts to expand access to higher education and cater to the growing demand for skilled professionals during industrialisation. Some original red brick universities include the University of Birmingham, the University of Liverpool, and the University of Manchester, among others.

On the other hand, the Russell Group is a separate association of 24 research-intensive universities in the UK. The group was established in 1994 and included prestigious institutions such as the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and Imperial College London, among others. The Russell Group universities are known for their focus on research and outstanding teaching. They typically have a strong reputation both nationally and internationally.

While some universities, such as the University of Birmingham and the University of Manchester, are red brick universities and members of the Russell Group, not all red brick universities are part of the Russell Group, and vice versa.

Are red brick universities better, and are they harder to get into?

Whether red brick universities are “better” or “harder” to get into is subjective. You should always consider what’s best for you and factors such as:

  1. Reputation and ranking: Some of today’s red brick universities have strong reputations and are recognised for their academic excellence. As well as their research contributions and the quality of education they offer. However, remember that not all of them have the same level of reputation or ranking.
  2. Entry requirements: Each university admission process depends on several factors, such as the program of study, competition, and the number of available places. Some red brick university programs may be more competitive than others.
  3. Subject-specific excellence: Always look out for universities that are particularly renowned in your discipline, whether red brick universities or not. Learn more with our guide on how to choose a university course.
  4. Campus and facilities: Each university can vary regarding campus facilities, resources, and student support services. Finding one with everything you’ll need to excel is vitally important.
  5. Personal fit: Ultimately, the best university for you is the one that aligns with your personal preferences, academic goals, and career aspirations.
  6. The area: Moving to uni for some students means moving away from home. Therefore, you’ll need to make sure you enjoy the vibe and culture of your potential new home.
  7. Cost: With course fees and accommodation rent, moving to university can come with a price tag. Assess your finances and ensure you’ll have enough to live comfortably. Read more with our guide on what to know about paying for student accommodation.
  8. Links to industries and employers: Some universities have fantastic connections to help you get a job after graduation.

Remember that the best university is the one that provides an environment conducive to personal growth, academic achievement, and overall satisfaction. Make sure you thoroughly explore and assess your options. Visit campuses, if possible, and speak with current students or alums to gain insights into the university’s culture and offerings.

Graduating students throw their hats outside a university building.

Red brick universities today

Over time, some of the universities have expanded, merged, and undergone significant transformations. They have evolved into comprehensive research institutions of high repute. Although the term “red brick university” may no longer strictly apply to all the institutions it once did, it remains a historical reference. And will always acknowledge their shared heritage and progressive vision in the evolution of higher education in the UK.

If you’re considering studying at a London university, make sure you take a look at our student accommodation in London. You can find more help and advice with our guide on choosing safe accommodation.

London red bus in front of a historical building

Sophia Rimmer

Sophia Rimmer

For more great posts from Urbanest about accommodation, London life, study tips and much more, visit the Student Journal.