Higher education in the UK

Universities, degrees and admissions

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 as a result, one in ten students in the UK come from overseas.

There are also many American colleges in the UK, mainly in the London area. For information contact The US-UK Fulbright Commission, Battersea Power Station, 188 Kirtling Street, London, SW8 5BN, www.fulbright.co.uk ).

In the last decade, there has been a boom in higher education and around 50 per cent of all school leavers now attend university.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. However, UK universities still feature amongst the top ranking higher education institutions in the world and continue to produce positive results.

British university fees

The situation regarding tuition fees in the UK has changed considerably over the past ten years. In 2004 tuition was increased from £1,000 to £3,000 a year. Maximum fees then increased to £3,290, before an extensive debate which resulted in the government allowing Universities to charge up £9,000 a year for students’ annual tuition costs from 2012. Students are entitled to loans from the government to help them cover the costs. Furthermore, grants are available for students whose parents have a substantially low income. In Scotland, the situation is different. Tuition fees were first abolished in Scotland due to devolution, and replaced with charge after graduation. The endowment system was later eliminated so that all students domiciled and studying in Scotland were not required to cover tuition costs.

Student loans for studying in the UK

The main finance package offered to students courtesy of the UK’s ‘Student Finance’ scheme, includes a:

  • Tuition Fee Loan
  • Maintenance Loan (full-time students only)
  • Maintenance Grant (full-time students only)

Tuition Fee Loans cover the cost of the course and are available to English or EU full-time or part-time students. The loan is paid directly to the university or college but has to be paid back. Generally speaking, full-time students are entitled to up to £9,000 of aid, while full-time students in a private university or college get a contribution of £6,000. As for part-time students, the general amount is £6,750, but part-timers at a private university college receive a contribution of £4,500.

Only  full-time English students can receive a Maintenance Loan for living costs. Part-time and EU students and students of 60 years and over aren’t eligible. However, if you are an English national who has returned to be part of UK higher education, this may apply to you. During the application, you may have to give details of your household income. The loan is paid directly into your bank account at the start of term and this too must be paid back. The Maintenance Loan covers those living at home (£4,375), those living away from home outside London (£5,500), those living away from home in London (£7,675) and those doing courses which involve a year studying abroad (£6,535).


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.

The requirements for receiving a Maintenance Grant are the same as those for a maintenance loan, except students are also required to state their course start date and grants don’t have to be paid back but the amount of Maintenance Loan is reduced as a result. If you’re eligible, you can use the Student Finance Calculator  to work out how much you can get in relation to your household income.

EU students

Loans 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 tuition fee loans on the same basis as British residents, but must pay their own living expenses.

With the exception of these loans, 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. Tuition fees for EU students range from £6,030 to £16,650 (maximum by far, Edinburgh) across UK universities.

Non-EU students

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 range from £8,150 to £31,494 (Cambridge) across UK universities. 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 at least £1,000 a month in London and around £600-650 elsewhere. Financial hardship has caused a big increase in student drop-outs in recent years, with one in eight students abandoning study to find a job.

Many universities have job clubs to help students supplement their income and this is popular with a considerable amount of students. Overseas students studying in the UK for longer than six months are entitled to free healthcare 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.

However, universities also take into account your suitability to the course and certain skills you have, and some may even require an admissions test, interview or audition. Furthermore, meeting the entry requirements does not necessarily guarantee you a place. If you’re offered a conditional place, the university may set conditions which may be either higher or lower than entry requirements, and these must be met.

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 often accepted. Contact individual universities for detailed information.


The university academic year runs from September or October to June or July and is generally divided into three terms of 8 to 10 weeks or two semesters of around 15 weeks. Students can choose to study a main subject plus one or two subsidiary subjects, one subject on its own, or a joint honours degree whereby both subject represent equal weighting in the degree.
Courses are generally three years in length but many students choose a sandwich course, which includes a year spent working in industry or commerce. Language degrees usually include a compulsory year abroad.

Types of 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 obtained from an average of 70% and above and considered ‘excellent’. Second-class degrees classified as 2.1 (60-70%, very good) and 2.2 (50-60%, average) are most frequent, while a third-class degree (less than 50%) is poor.

The lowest classification is a ‘pass’. Second, or ‘postgraduate’, 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 postgraduate 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).


All applications to UK universities for full-time courses are made through UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. The UCAS website includes all the British universities as well as 300 other college institutions. If it is a part-time course that you wish to do, you have to contact the universities individually to find out how to apply.

To apply through UCAS, you can use their online application procedure ‘Apply ’, via the UCAS website. UCAS works closely with schools, colleges, libraries and other agencies to make sure that all applicants can access the system.

Usually, the application process goes as follows:

  • From March to September, you should be researching and making choices about universities and courses. Open days, conferences and HE fairs/conventions take place between these two months. Make as many visits as you can to get your own impression about your shortlisted universities, then you can apply from mid-September.
  • 15th October is the UCAS deadline for applications to Cambridge or Oxford or for courses in medicine, dentistry or veterinary science/medicine at any university.
  • 15th January is the UCAS deadline for all other applications, to be treated equally from the UK or elsewhere in the EU (except some art and design courses). Applications are normally accepted after this date but are marked ‘late’. You encouraged to apply well before the 15th January deadline to enable schools to add such things as references, and check personal statements and choices. The application should include five course choices.
  • Between February and July, those who were unlucky enough not to get any of their five choices can use UCAS Extra  to make a sixth choice of university. If an offer if received, students select to accept or decline. If they still don’t receive an offer, students have the option to make a sixth choice until they receive an offer or run out of time.
  • On February 25th UCAS Extra applicants can refer themselves to another choice.
  • March 24th is the extended deadline for some art and design courses. See the UCAS website  for details of these courses.
  • UCAS aim to publish universities and colleges’ decisions by 31st March for applications received by 15th January, but they can take longer.
  • 8th May is when you have to reply to any offers you received by 31st March, unless you are applying via UCAS Extra. If UCAS does not receive your reply by this date, they will decline the offers on your behalf.
  • By 9th May, universities need to have sent their decisions to UCAS for the sake of those who applied by 15th January.
  • If UCAS only received decisions by 9th May, you must reply to these offers by 6th June, unless you are applying through UCAS Extra.
  • 27th June is the deadline for replying to any offers than UCAS received by 7th June.
  • If UCAS receive your application by 30th June, they will send it to your chosen universities or colleges. All applications received after this date will be sent into clearing, where students are matched to universities in need of students.
  • In July, results are published for BTEC and IB qualifications. Students taking these qualifications do not have to wait for the August clearing process to confirm their place or check for vacancies.
  • 3rd July is the deadline to apply via UCAS Extra.
  • By 18th July, UCAS need to have made their decision on applications made by 30th June.
  • 25th July is when you have to reply to decisions made by 18th July, and this includes UCAS Extra applicants. This also the deadline for making changes to replies.
  • SQA (Scottish qualification) results are published and the Scottish clearing vacancy service starts on 6th August.
  • 20th September is the deadline for accepting applications for courses starting the same year.
  • 22nd October is the deadline for adding a clearing choice and for universities and colleges to accept an applicant in clearing.

Students should keep an eye on updates each year, published here .

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