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Durham University (UK)

If you're looking for a 'Harry Potter' university experience in the UK, how about the place where many Harry Potter scenes were actually filmed... Durham University!


Imagine a small, mystical, hilly English city with its skyline dominated by a cathedral and castle, and this is precisely where you'll find it.


In fact, the peninsula where the cathedral and castle are located is actually a World Heritage site itself.


But in addition to holding religious services since the late 11th century and nowadays being the venue for student graduations, the cathedral has also held another important purpose in its time -- as the site for many of those scenes.


And at Durham University, it really doesn't get more Harry Potter than this, as the university also 'sorts' students into one of its 17 colleges of residence, which are mini residential and social communities with their own activities, formal dinners, societies, sports teams and more.


Here are some of the highlights from my visit to campus in June 2023!


Inside Durham Cathedral
Inside Durham Cathedral

City of Durham


Located in England's northeast, just three hours on the train from London, Durham is a very green, safe and walkable city.


In fact, you can walk from one side of the city to another in about 30 minutes.


Obviously, the cathedral is one of the city's main attractions, and it's definitely one of the most beautiful I've seen.


Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral
Imagine graduating right here!
Imagine graduating right here!
Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral grounds
Durham Cathedral grounds
Durham Cathedral grounds

The River Wear loops through the centre, and walking along it is extremely peaceful.


River Wear
River Wear
River Wear
Lots of bridges in this city!
Lots of bridges in this city!
River Wear

The city is hilly though, so you'll no doubt be in good shape in no time.


Cathedral and castle
Castle and cathedral
Durham streets

Without students, Durham's population is about 60,000; with students, it grows to about 82,000.


This means it's not as wildly lively as Newcastle, which is 10 minutes away on the train, but having both environments close by means students get the best of both worlds.


Durham city centre
Durham city centre
Kingsgate bridge
Kingsgate bridge

So what do students do in Durham?


Clearly, they like to get involved; 85 percent of students participate in clubs and societies.


There are a whopping 27 theatre companies that run 90 productions a year and 84 music societies that have around 80 concerts a year!

Durham city centre
Durham city centre
Durham at sunset

There are also 700 sports teams, and Durham has been ranked top in the UK for sports since 2013 (there's a new sports centre, too).


Academics


Founded in 1832, Durham is the third oldest university in England after Oxford and Cambridge, and it's equally as charming.


A Russell Group institution, it's also one of the leading universities in the UK (The Guardian ranks it fifth in the country), and in the 2024 World University Rankings, it was 78th in the world (close to Brown, UT Austin and Washington).


Of its 22,000 students, 32 percent are international, and whilst the university doesn't want to get any bigger, it does want to get even more international.


In terms of its campus, Durham doesn't have one distinct self-contained campus; instead, its buildings are everywhere throughout the city.


The Bailey is the historic centre of the university and is close to the Students' Union.


Students' Union, designed by the same person who designed the Sydney Opera House!
Students' Union, designed by the same person who designed the Sydney Opera House!

The Mountjoy site is where the vast majority of the large lecture theatres and the library are.


Teaching and Learning Centre
Lecture hall in Teaching and Learning Centre
Inside the Teaching and Learning Centre
Inside the Teaching and Learning Centre
Psychology building, close to the steep Cardiac Hill!
Psychology building, close to the steep Cardiac Hill!
Bill Bryson Library
Bill Bryson Library
Home to the Institute of Medical Humanities
Home to the Institute of Medical Humanities

Durham has four faculties: Business, Arts and Humanities, Science and Social Science.


Anthropology building
Anthropology building

Some of its top programs are PPE, business, history, computer science and archaeology.


Brand new building for computer science and mathematics
Brand new building for computer science and mathematics
Mountjoy Teaching and Learning Centre
Mountjoy Teaching and Learning Centre

In fact, Durham has the largest archaeology department in the country, and there is no shortage of interesting archaeological sites nearby, including one right underneath the cathedral where remains of Scottish soldiers from the 17th century were discovered just 10 years ago!


St Oswald's Church
St Oswald's Church

I was fortunate to sit in on a criminology lecture as well and learn about the Inside-Out prison exchange program that final year students can participate in.


It's a formal program that was first started in the U.S., where 'outside' students go into prisons to learn collaboratively and build bridges.


Durham has been running it since 2014 though and was actually the first university outside the U.S. to offer it.


Durham colleges


One thing Durham prides itself on is its 98 percent continuation rate, and this is in large part due to the communities developed through its college system.


Street art in Durham

Unlike Oxford and Cambridge, whose colleges are residential and also academic, Durham's are just residential (and social).


They're designed to replicate the overall university academic experience; for example, if 10 percent of the overall university is studying maths, then 10 percent of the colleges are made up of maths students.


St John's College
St John's College

When applying to Durham, students also apply for a college, but if they're given an offer, they'll then be asked to rank all the colleges.


About 72 percent of students do end up getting their first choice though, and they can then live in that college throughout the entire duration of the course if they wanted.


Some students choose their college primarily based on its location, but other factors worth considering are size, values and facilities (ensuite rooms, etc.).


There's also a postgraduate-only college (Ustinov).


Four colleges are self-catered (no meal plan), 10 are fully catered and two are mixed.


Some colleges have students gowned formal dinners, too.


The University College (in the castle!) is the oldest and most popular, but St Mary's is also popular because it has a view of the cathedral from outside.


View from St Mary's
View from St Mary's

With 1,100 students, St Mary's has a reputation for being the friendliest.


St Mary's College
St Mary's College
St Mary's College
St Mary's College
Inside St Mary's
Inside St Mary's

Collingwood is one of the largest, with 1,800 students, and on the opposite scale, St Chad's is the smallest, with about 700.


St Chad's College, which is right across the street from the cathedral
St Chad's College, which is right across the street from the cathedral

Regardless, every college has its own gym, library, full-time porters, mentors, different traditions and songs, boathouses for rowing and a theatre company!


When students arrive in the first year, they're also given 'college parents' who are in their second or third years to look after them and build 'families'.


Because of all the support, one former student said it's very difficult for someone to 'slip through the cracks' if they're struggling.


Durham University: Summary


It's pretty easy for me to say that Durham University is one of my favorite UK institutions.


Academically, Durham has a stellar reputation within the UK and internationally, and it's set in an incredibly unique and charming city.


Sometimes new university students tend to get lost in the mix, especially in the first year, but this is really difficult to do at Durham.


It's smaller than most UK universities to begin with, but also, its collegiate system makes for instant friendships and connections with students across all subject areas.


Durham city centre

And to top it off, students get to walk to class down cobbled streets, learn from some of the leading professors and ultimately, graduate in the incredibly beautiful Durham Cathedral.


What more could you want in a UK study experience?


 

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G'day! My name is Sara, and I'm the founder of College Apps Abroad and a Certified Educational Planner (CEP), one of only 40 CEP's in California and 300 worldwide. I have more than 10 years of experience working in international recruitment and admissions, and I've studied and lived overseas myself in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Brazil for almost a decade. I've also worked for some of the world's top institutions, including The University of Edinburgh, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and The University of Western Australia (UWA)!

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