Why study in the UK?
Top UK universities are among the best in the world. Then there is the added advantage of studying in English. Also, British universities have the tradition of rich and stimulating student life. Each of them offers a broad range of extracurricular activities. Universities tend to be very well-organized and, in contrast to continental Europe, administrative issues are dealt with quickly and effectively.
Many UK institutions are campus universities. The so-called new universities which the government started to build in 1960s (York, Warwick, Lancaster) were campus-based, located close to small towns and cities away from large metropolises. (On the right: one of the colleges on the University of York campus.)
Later, many of the older universities would also tend to group their facilities into campus-like arrangements. The advantage of a campus is obvious. Everything (dormitories, classrooms, the library, sports and social facilities) is close. The drawback could be their distance from city centres and their social life.
What could make student life in the UK difficult? Depending on personal preferences, this could be the weather, which tends to be worse the further West or North one heads. Especially the Slavic and more Southern nations often find the British a little bit cold.
In common with many other European countries, the UK has a centralized accreditation system. Almost all universities accredited by the UK government are public bodies. They are mainly financed out of tuition fees and government research grants but many have substantial income from research for the private sector. In exchange for receiving government research funding, universities have to maintain tuition fee ceilings. However, there are two higher education institutions that do not get any funding from the government and in turn charge the fees they set freely. The older is the University of Buckingham. And recently a few academic celebrities got together to found the New College of the Humanities in London.
Beside these institutions, you can also find, especially in London, many establishments that do not have full or any accreditation. Degrees from these are difficult or impossible to get recognized. In addition, cases of outright fraud are not uncommon. A few years ago, a few hundred Americans applied for and paid the enrolment fee to an “Oxford College”. They thought this was part of the famous University of Oxford. In reality, the fees were pocketed by a company which simply gave itself the name to resemble the famous institution and had a UK post box.
Similarly, one should be careful about online programmes operated out of the UK. Many of them are not really accredited even when they are linked to a proper university and some are outright frauds.
Reputation and rankings
Quality rankings and university guides are very popular in the UK. The oldest is the one published for 20 years now by the weekly The Sunday Times. The sister publication, the daily The Times, publishes its own Good University Guide. Another daily, The Guardian, publishes another widely followed ranking (this one is freely available, without subscription fees). Mayfield University Consultants, which put together the original Sunday Times guide, now publish their own The Complete University Guide.
Of course, traditionally, the two oldest universities, Oxford and Cambridge, enjoy the best reputation. Also the old Scottish universities tend to be highly regarded. The oldest is St. Andrews (founded 1413), which is also known as the place where the crown prince gets his degree (last time it was prince William). Solid reputation is also enjoyed by the second oldest university in Scotland, Glasgow University, and especially by Edinburgh University.
Many of the red brick universities, founded in the 19th century, are also associated with prestige and high research quality. Examples include the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the Imperial College, University College London (UCL), Manchester University, University of Bristol (see picture). With time, also some of the new universities, which the government founded in 1960s in predominantly rural locations, made it to the top: York, Lancaster and Warwick.
In general, any university that is part of the elite Russell Group will provide solid education. Russel Group is the association of 24 UK universities that spend most of the country’s research funds.
How to apply
Undergraduate applicants (both UK and international) should apply through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). To apply for a graduate programme (master’s and doctorate) you should contact the university directly.
Costs, scholarships and financial aid
In contrast to continental Europe, UK universities charge relatively high tuition fees. The government imposes a fee ceiling, but in practice for most courses universities charge the maximum or an amount very close to the top amount allowed. Recently, the ceiling was raised considerably and in England, Wales and Northern Ireland you will now usually pay 9,000 GBP annually. This is the fee charged to UK and other EU students. Overseas (non-EU) students pay full fees, which tend to be higher. An overview is provided by UCAS.
However, at the undergraduate level, the UK and other EU students have access to financial aid. They can apply for a fee waiver based on low family income and they can also apply for a loan from the Student Loans Company. More detailed information is provided by the webpage of the UK government.
You can be charged even higher fees for some graduate programmes. Also, you don’t have access to the same financial aid as you have at the undergraduate level. On the other hand, students have access to research grants and other forms of assistance. For example, Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) provides funding to humanities students. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) provides social science research grants. Then there are also several natural science and technical research councils. The drawback is that an international student will only get a full scholarship from these if she or he continually lived in the UK for 3 years before applying. If not, the assistance only covers tuition fees but not living costs. A good financial aid search tool is provided by Education UK, a portal sponsored by the British Council.
It should be added that Scotland has a considerable degree of autonomy in education matters and for Scottish and EU residents universities do not charge the same high fees as you get charged in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Did you know...
The two oldest universities, Oxford and Cambridge, have a very strong system of “colleges”? This means two things. On top of the tuition fee, the student also has to pay the college fee, which tends to be as high as the tuition fee and doubles the cost of study. Secondly, while to an outsider it looks like the university has a fairly uniform student body, in reality there is sometimes strong rivalry between the individual colleges. The colleges have their own traditions and reputations (e.g. Magdalen College in Oxford is traditionally conservative and aristocratic, Balliol is the “leftie” college, and so on). In general, the older colleges tend to be more prestigious (and often richer) than the newer ones.
London School of Economics (LSE), University College London, King‘s College and others (in total 18 universities and 10 research institutes) are actually part of one University of London? The individual schools have very considerable autonomy, however, they sometimes combine resources, students or even classes.