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Higher Education in the UK

More than just “Oxbridge”: If you are considering higher education in the UK, we aim to provide you with essential information. From the various degrees you can obtain to admission requirements, costs, and finally, the visa required for going to university in the UK — our expat guide has it all.
This venerable building in Oxford – the so-called Radcliffe Camera – houses part of the famous university library.
  • No matter whether you’re looking for something academic or practical, there are plenty of options in terms of subjects and institution for higher education.
  • If you’re looking to go to law or medical school, we have good news — you won’t need a bachelor’s degree before applying in the UK.
  • Higher education in the UK is expensive, however, the prices are fairly standard across the country. It’s therefore better to consider league tables over cost when applying.

When you think about higher education in the UK, you will probably think of an élite university in the “Oxbridge” tradition, as popularized in, for example, the screen adaptations of the novel Brideshead Revisited: Young men in white summer suits are strolling leisurely over green meadows between the elegant buildings of their alma mater…

While the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge still play an influential role in higher education in the UK, there is, of course, more than one kind of university. Indeed, any university in the UK belongs to one of the following six categories.

From Ancient to Open: Types of University in the UK

To become a proper university, an institution of higher education in the UK must be granted an official charter – a Royal Charter, in most cases – that gives it the right to award university degrees.

  • A so-called “ancient university”, like Oxford, St Andrew’s or Dublin, was founded and chartered between the 12th and the 18th centuries.
  • About half a dozen institutions (such as the University of London) go back to the 19th century.
  • In the last 100 years, higher education in the UK’s industrial cities led to the foundation of the “redbrick universities”, usually chartered before World War One.
  • A “plate-glass university” was established to accommodate the rising student population of the 1960s.
  • The “new university” of the 1990s, is often a former polytechnic that once offered vocational training and then became a full university, frequently with a technical focus.
  • Last but not least, the “Open University” in the UK is the country’s most important long-distance learning institute.

An Endless Array of Options

The first –and most influential – decision is the subject you’d like to study and the degree course you want to attend. From Aerospace Engineering with Private Pilot Instruction in Sheffield to Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, the choice of academic subjects provided by higher education in the UK seems endless.

When selecting a degree course, you should take several factors into account:

  • personal interests
  • individual skills (numerical or verbal, analytical or creative)
  • previous academic achievements
  • career plans and prospects of applying for a job in the UK

From the Beginning: Undergraduate Degrees

Someone with no previous knowledge of their chosen field of study, or with a related degree unfortunately not recognized by higher education in the UK, should probably go for an undergraduate course. These programs are usually taught as a combination of lectures, seminars, and small tutorial classes in several modules with varying topical cores. They mostly take three years to complete and lead up to a bachelor’s degree (Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Education, or Bachelor of Engineering).

Scottish universities, however, represent a certain exception to higher education in the UK. Unlike all other universities in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales, they award bachelor degrees with full honors only after four years.

For the More Experienced: Graduate Degrees

If you already have an undergrad degree, either from a university in the UK or an accredited institution abroad, you can continue your studies in the same or a closely related field with a postgrad master’s degree. These programs may take one year of additional study or two years of research.

Mature students (i.e. students over the age of 23, many of whom have already professional experience) might also be interested in vocational degrees, such as the Certificate of Higher Education, the Diploma of Higher Education, or the Higher National Diploma. Furthermore, part-time courses (obtaining a bachelor’s degree takes five years or more), as well as long-distance degrees from the Open University, are also an option. They should be of particular interest to everyone currently working or raising a family, and they are a genuine alternative to traditional higher education in the UK.

A master’s degree is the requirement for entry into a Ph.D. course. In contrast to the US, though, higher education in the UK does not require an undergrad degree if you want to go to med school or become a lawyer. All students of law and medicine can enter such courses immediately after completing their secondary education.


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