Higher Education in the UK
Universities, degrees and admissions
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UK - Education
Post-school education is generally divided into higher and further education. Higher education is usually defined as advanced courses of a standard higher than A-levels or equivalent and usually refers only to first degree courses.
Courses may be full-time, part-time or sandwich courses (nothing to do with food, but courses which combine periods of full-time study with full-time training and paid work in industry and commerce). Degree level courses are offered by 89 universities (48 old universities and 41 new universities which were formerly polytechnics), plus 15 Scottish central institutions and hundreds of Colleges of Higher Education (CHE), many of which provide teacher-training courses.
The UK is internationally renowned for the excellence of its universities and other higher education establishments, which include the world-famous Oxford (12th century) and Cambridge (13th century) universities (collectively referred to as Oxbridge).
The age of admission to university is usually 18 (although they admit exceptional students at a younger age) and courses usually last for three years or four years. This is seen as a big advantage for foreign students from countries where courses often last much longer and results in British universities attracting almost 100,000 overseas students.
There are also many American colleges in the UK, mainly in the London area. For information contact the Educational Advisory Service, The Fulbright Commission, Fulbright House, 62 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2JZ, 020-7404 6994, www.fulbright.co.uk).
In the last decade, there has been a boom in higher education and around 40 per cent of all school leavers now attend university. Since the early ‘80s, the number of undergraduates has almost doubled to 1.4 million and today’s 18-year-olds have a 60 per cent chance of going to university, at some time in their lives. Many universities have lowered their entrance qualifications to attract more students and also because of falling standards among the UK’s school leavers.
In recent years, there has been a debate about the ‘dumbing down’ of higher education, as some universities accept students who failed their A-levels to fill empty places (universities face financial penalties if they don’t enrol sufficient students). Some universities also ‘mark up’ students who fail their exams and many people believe that the standards of today’s degrees have been watered down and are far lower than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Some analysts even believe that the UK’s hallowed Oxford and Cambridge universities are falling below the standards set by some other countries, particularly the US.
Fees of British universities
British and European Union (EU) students must pay £1200 a year towards their tuition costs. Students whose parents earn less than £20,970 a year are exempt and there are also other special exemptions.
Student Loans for studying in the UK
In the absence of grants, the government introduced a student loan scheme for maintenance, whereby students can take out interest-free loans. In 2007/8 loans varied from £2,620 (a student living at home not income assessed) to a maximum of £6,315 (for a student living away from home in London).
From 2006 you have also been able to get a student loan for fees up to a maximum of £3,070, which is paid direct to your university or college on your behalf. A portion of a loan, currently 75 per cent, isn’t available to all students with the remaining 25 per cent income assessed according to your family’s income. Interest on the loan is linked to inflation.
Loans are repayable after the April following graduation, once your income is above the income threshold (£15,000). You pay 9 per cent of your income above the threshold; for example if your income is £19,000 a year, you would repay £30 a month (9 per cent of £4,000).
Therefore, the amount you repay each month is directly related to your income. A free booklet entitled Financial Support for Higher Education Students is published by the Department for Education and Skills (www.dfes.gov.uk/studentsupport).
Students in financial difficulties may be entitled to non-repayable grants from the Access to Learning Fund, a one-stop, discretionary fund which has replaced Hardship Loans and Hardship Funds. Information is available from individual colleges and universities.
In addition to loans, students can apply for financial help from ‘access funds’ which colleges can distribute at their discretion to their most needy students. When you arrive at university, you are informed about student loans and the access fund by your college administration department or the student union. Banks also offer students interest-free overdrafts, although these should be treated with caution.
An increasing number of companies and professional organisations (plus the military) sponsor higher education, in return for a number of years of service. Many students find it increasingly difficult to survive on their income and some are forced to choose their university not on course preference, but on where they can more easily survive on their meagre resources.
If you’re starting at university or college you’re eligible for a non-repayable Higher Education Grant of up to £1,000 a year, depending on your personal and household income; the maximum grant of £1,000 will be paid to people with an income of less than £16,340 in 2007/08.
Grants covering fees and living expenses are also given to European Union (EU) nationals and their children working in the UK, and to officially recognised refugees and their children. EU nationals who are normally resident within the union area are eligible for grants (covering university fees only) on the same basis as British residents, but must pay their own living expenses.
With the exception of these grants, authorities can give grants covering fees and living expenses only to students who have been resident in the UK (or the Channel Islands or Isle of Man) for the three years immediately before the first year of their course. The factors determining the size of a grant are complex, but depend largely on a student’s financial resources and those of his parents.
Overseas students from outside the EU must pay the full cost of their courses and living expenses. This includes non-EU, EEA nationals unless they’ve been migrant workers in the UK or are the child or spouse of an EEA migrant worker. Fees for overseas students are as follows: Arts subjects from £6,250 to £7,650; Science subjects from £6,500 to £9,700; and clinical subjects from £9,960 to £18,000. There are, however, public and private scholarships and award schemes available to overseas students, particularly at postgraduate level.
These are provided by the British government, the British Council, universities and individual colleges, and by a number of private trusts and professional bodies. Details of grants are available from around 80 British Council offices worldwide and from a comprehensive website
(www.educationuk.org/scholarships). Even with a grant, you must be able to support yourself during your studies.
Young people aged 16 to 18 who have been admitted into the UK with their families or otherwise, may be permitted to continue their education at school or at a post-school establishment provided by LEAs. Fees may be payable and students must have an adequate knowledge of English and show evidence of suitable entry qualifications.
A foreign national over 18 who wishes to study full-time in the UK on a course lasting longer than six months (and which leads to a professional or educational qualification) must provide evidence of his educational qualifications and his financial means. Evidence must be given to the educational establishment and to the immigration authorities.
Cost of Living
The estimated annual living costs for students (excluding course fees) are around £730 a month in London and £585 in the provinces. Financial hardship has caused a big increase in student drop-outs in recent years, with one in eight students abandoning study for a job.
Many universities have job clubs to help students supplement their income and around a third of students work their way through university. Overseas students studying in the UK for longer than six months are entitled to free health care from the National Health Service.
Students on shorter courses also benefit if their home country has a reciprocal health agreement with the UK; otherwise they should take out private health insurance.
Entrance Qualifications for British universities
The usual minimum qualification for entrance to a university is a mixture of GCE A-levels and AS-levels or SCE highers (set in Scotland). Generally, the better the university (or the better the reputation) and the more popular the course, the higher the entrance qualifications.
Applicants usually need a minimum of two or three A-level passes and three GCSE passes (minimum grade C), including a foreign language and English and mathematics. The minimum entrance requirements are set by individual universities and colleges and vary considerably.
The basic A-level entry requirement for most diploma courses is an A-level E grade and many colleges of higher education and universities accept students with a couple of A-level D grades. Universities and other institutions are usually flexible in their entrance requirements, particularly with regard to ‘mature’ students (anyone 21 or over) and those with qualifications other than A-levels. Some 20 per cent of university students are aged over 35.
Generally, overseas students’ qualifications, which would admit them to a university in their own country, are taken into consideration.
However, passes in particular GCSE or A-level subjects (or equivalent) may still be required. Whatever your qualifications, all applications are considered on their merits. Some universities have been forced to lower entrance requirements, particularly for science and engineering courses, due to a drop in GCE A-level standards (some have also extended engineering courses from three to four years).
All foreign students require a thorough knowledge of English, which is usually examined unless a certificate is provided. British universities accept the International Baccalaureate (IB) certificate as an entrance qualification, but a US high school diploma isn’t usually accepted. Contact individual universities for detailed information.
The university academic year runs from September or October to June or July and is divided into three terms of 8 to 10 weeks. Students study a main subject plus one or two subsidiary subjects and specialise in their main subject for the first one or two years.
The main subject is often subdivided into parts, each taught by a different professor or lecturer, e.g. mathematics may be subdivided into pure, applied, geometry and algebra. In some universities, it’s possible for students to design their own degree courses. Many students choose a sandwich course, which includes a year spent working in industry or commerce.
Although course fees are set by individual institutions, they may take into consideration government-recommended fee levels. For home students and students from EU countries, annual fees are set at three levels. EU students can obtain a booklet , Investing in the Future: Help with Tuition Fees for European Union (EU) Students .
University degrees in the UK
The most common degrees awarded are a Bachelor of Arts (BA) and a Bachelor of Science (BSc). Bachelor’s degrees are given a classification, the highest of which is an ‘honours’ degree, which is awarded when the course included extra detail in the main subject. The highest pass is a first-class degree, which is quite rare. Second-class degrees classified as 2.1 (very good) and 2.2 (average) are usual, while a third-class degree is poor.
The lowest classification is a ‘pass’. Second degrees are usually a Master of Arts (MA) or a Master of Science (MSc), which are awarded to Bachelors for a one-year course in a subject other than their undergraduate subjects. Students who do post-graduate work in the same subject(s) as their undergraduate work, usually do a two-year Master of Philosophy (M-Phil) or a three-year Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) research programme. In some Scottish universities, a Masters degree is awarded as the first degree in arts subjects.
Graduates who wish to qualify as teachers must do a four-year Bachelor of Education (BEd) degree course or a one-year post-graduate training course at a university or teacher training college (known as a Postgraduate Certificate of Education or PGCE).
To apply for a place at university, you should begin by writing to the Admissions Officer of selected universities, giving your personal details and asking for information. If you’re encouraged by the reply, you must then apply formally.
All applicants for entry to full-time, first degree (undergraduate) courses at British universities must be made to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services (UCAS), PO Box 28, Cheltenham GL52 3LZ (0870-112 2211, www.ucas.com), which publishes a handbook listing all universities, colleges and courses (over 100,000!). A useful book for university applicants is the UCAS University and College Entrance Official Guide.
Applicants can apply by post or online for a maximum of six courses (which may be at six different universities), for which there’s a fee of around £15. The number of applicants per university place varies considerably from university to university. You would be wise not to make all your applications at universities where competition for places is at its fiercest (unless you’re a genius).
Most universities have between 10 and 15 applications per place available, with the most popular courses, including medicine, law, and arts courses such as English. The university year usually begins in October, so you should make your application in autumn of the year before you plan to start your course (e.g. apply in the autumn of 2007 for entry in October 2008).
UCAS accepts applications from 1st September of the previous year and the closing date is 15th January (15th October for Oxford or Cambridge universities, where applicants apply direct to colleges and may need to take an entrance exam). Those with a number of offers must choose two by 15th May; otherwise they are deemed to have rejected all offers of a place.
Late applications are considered until June of the entrance year and a ‘clearing’ scheme operates up to September for late applications. When A-level results are announced in August each year, the quality newspapers (broadsheets) publish details of degree and Higher National Degree (HND) vacancies at university colleges for those who haven’t yet attained a place.
This is also intended to assist those who may have done better or worse than expected in their A-levels, and may wish to seek a place at a ‘better’ university or who no longer qualify for their original choice. Many colleges also advertise their courses in national newspapers, particularly in educational supplements. The electronic education network Campus 2000 operates until 21st September each year and is the primary source of up-to-date vacancy details.
The cost of accommodation is a major factor for many students when deciding which university to attend and an increasing number of students stay at home and study locally because of the rising costs. Following acceptance by a college or university, students are advised to apply for a place in a hall of residence (‘in hall’) or other college accommodation, such as self-catering houses and apartments.
Such accommodation is limited to around one-third of all students, although most universities accommodate all first year students. Students should write as soon as possible after acceptance to accommodation or welfare officers, whose job is to help students find suitable accommodation (college and private). Some colleges guarantee accommodation to overseas students for the duration of their course. The cost of accommodation in halls of residence varies considerably and averages around £50 a week.
A large number of students rent privately-owned apartments or houses, that are shared with other students, although in many areas this kind of accommodation is difficult to find and expensive (from around £60 a week in the provinces up to £250 a week in London). Another alternative is to find lodgings (or digs) where you rent a room in a private house with meals included. There are lots of websites where you can look for accommodation; a good one for London is http://uk.urbanest.com/
The British Council may be able to help you find accommodation (the address of your local office can be obtained from British Diplomatic Posts abroad). If you’re studying in London, contact the British Council Accommodation Unit (020-7930 8466). The British Council Information Centre (10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A 2BN, 020-7389 4548, www.britishcouncil.org) provides information and advice on studying in the UK for overseas students. Their sister website, Education UK, also has excellent information on studying in the UK (www.educationuk.org).
In addition to the traditional universities (where students attend all lectures at the university), the UK also has an Open University (OU). It has no central campus and most study work is done at home. The OU is one of the biggest success stories of British education and, since its establishment in 1969, it has enrolled well over a million people.
The Open University is, as the name suggests, open to all, irrespective of age, occupation, background or previous qualifications. There are no entry qualifications, no admission interview and no barriers of any kind, and courses are filled on a first-come, first-served principle. You must simply be 18 or over, resident in the UK and be willing to do a lot of hard work!
Open University students study at home in their spare time (some lectures are broadcast on BBC radio and TV, often starting as early as 6am). However, you aren’t left to struggle along on your own: the OU has a network of 13 regional centres and over 250 study centres throughout the UK that are the bases for some 5,000 tutors and councillors whose job is to guide you through your studies.
You also have the opportunity to meet fellow students at tutorials and residential summer schools. In addition to traditional degree courses, the OU offers short courses, self-contained study packs and post-graduate degrees. For further information contact the Central Enquiry Service, Open University, PO Box 197, Milton Keynes MK7 6BJ (0845-300 6090, www.open.ac.uk).
All universities have a huge variety of societies and clubs, many of which are organised by the students’ union or council, which is the centre of social activities. Most college students’ unions or councils in England and Wales are affiliated to the National Union of Students. There are also student union bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Most universities have excellent sports facilities that may also be open to the public. Wherever you’re studying, take at least six passport-size photographs for student identity cards, hall and travel cards.
The Consumers’ Association publishes a number of books for those planning to enter higher education, including Making the Most of Higher Education by Edith Rudinger, Which? Subject? and Which? Career? Other useful books include The Student Book by Klaus Boehm and Jenny Lees-Spalding (Trotman), which contains everything you need to know about how to get into and survive university, and The Times Good University Guide by John O’Leary (Times Books).
The School Leaver & Which Course magazine is available at Careers Centres. UKCOSA provides a wealth of information for prospective foreign university students in the UK.
This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.
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