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An Overview of The uk University System

an overview of the uk universityProfessor T.E.A. Beravale provides an introduction to the UK university system and to finding suitable courses (BA, MA, MSc and PhD programmes) for children, spouses and diplomats themselves 

UK UNIVERSITIES have a great appeal to students from all over the world: many diplomats currently serving in London were themselves educated in Britain, and indeed continue to further their education while posted here. Over the years, I have assisted many diplomats in finding suitable university programmes for their children, spouses and also themselves.

For most diplomats and their family members, it will be natural to study at one of the numerous colleges and universities located in London. The University of London comprises 18 colleges and schools – including University College London (UCL), Queen Mary, King’s College London (KCL), the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) – all of which have a large degree of autonomy. Imperial College London, while formerly part of the University of London, is now fully independent.

London hosts numerous other institutions of higher learning, such as City University London, University of Westminster and London Metropolitan University.   An interesting new addition to this scene is the establishment of the New College of Humanities, a private university, charging £17,814 per year, which enrolled its first students in autumn 2012.

Nevertheless, it may happen that a desired area of specialisation is not available in London, or simply that a student wishes to attend university somewhere outside the capital. Fortunately, there are many opportunities further afield. In recent years, I have met diplomats and their family members enrolled at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Surrey, Sheffield, Kingston, Newcastle and Kent.

University admission is typically on the basis of A-level results, although more and more offers are being made on the basis of International Baccalaureate (IB) results. Some universities also set their own admissions tests – for both entry and particular subjects.

Applications at undergraduate level are centralised through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). Undergraduate students are allowed to specify up to five alternative course choices at different universities, although they cannot apply to both Cambridge and Oxford. All applicants must prove competence in English either by getting a grade C or above in GCSE English or by taking a special examination.  For students who are admitted on the basis of A-levels, depending on subject choice, one A-level in the area of study – with a good grade – is likely to be a requirement. For admission at postgraduate level (such as for MA, MSc and PhD programmes), students make their applications directly to as many different universities as they please.

Britain is home to some of the oldest universities in the world. Though the exact date is unknown, the University of Oxford was established sometime before 1167, followed by Cambridge in 1209. North of the border, the University of St Andrews is Scotland’s oldest university, having been founded in 1413; during that century the University of Glasgow (1451) and the University of Aberdeen (1495) were also established.

British universities consistently rank among the best in the world. In a 2013 world ranking report produced by the Centre for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Cambridge placed fifth (after Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and Berkeley, in the US), while Oxford placed tenth, University College London was 21st and Imperial College London was 24th (see www.shanghairanking.com). Meanwhile, in the QS World University Rankings for 2014, Cambridge placed third, UCL placed fourth, Imperial College London placed fifth and Oxford was ranked sixth (see www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2014). These, like other rankings, are based on varying criteria that are themselves given different weights, therefore no particular ranking can be said to be ‘correct’. Nonetheless, the results do indicate an impressive breadth and depth of quality among UK universities.

In addition to the overall rankings of universities, different subjects are also ranked. For instance, the University of East Anglia is highly regarded for International Development and Environment Studies, as well as for its courses in Drama, Dance, Creative Writing and Literary Translation. Similarly, the University of Manchester is highly ranked for Politics and International Relations. Imperial College London, on the other hand, does not offer these subjects at all, but is known to be outstanding in Sciences and Medicine. It is therefore crucial to seek out as much information as possible, for while the overall reputation of a university certainly matters, sometimes its reputation in particular subjects, especially at the postgraduate level, can be just as important, even if less widely known. Through its educational supplements, The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk/education/series/university-guide-2013-subjects) provides valuable assistance on this score.

As part of the coalition government’s policies towards higher education, a review of student tuition fees has been undertaken. ‘As of September 2012, the maximum tuition fee for home students (IE, UK and EU nationals) is £9,000.’  The average fee is currently about £7,700 per year (2014-15). All home students paying the new fee can access a government loan to cover it.  The loans are repaid by graduates according to their earnings, and nothing is repaid on earnings under £21,000; EU students’ repayments will vary according to their country of residence.

Additional maintenance loans are only available to British students; however grants and bursaries are available from universities to assist students with the cost of living.  EU students apply for tuition fee loans from the Student Finance Services European Team, T: 0141 243 3570 or E: EU_Team@slc.co.uk.

Student fees vary depending on the programme, the student’s nationality and to some extent the university itself.  While the government has put a cap on tuition fees for home students (UK and EU) at the undergraduate level, it does not regulate fees charged to non-EU students or by postgraduate courses. This is due to the ‘formula’ by which the government funds higher education with subsidies for home students at the undergraduate level. As an example, for its BA programme in Economics, UCL charges £9,000 per year for home students but £16,200 for non-EU students (2014-15). For an MSc in Economics, the same institution charges £14,250 for home students and £18,300 for non-EU students. On the other hand, LSE, which appears to be more market-oriented in its pricing policy, charges all students – regardless of their nationality – £23,064 for its MSc course in Economics.

The increase in fees has been met with great opposition from students.  Moreover, it caused a record number of applications for university entrance in 2011, as students did their utmost to be enrolled while the lower fees were still in place, especially because they would pay the lower fees for their entire programme.   Applications were down in 2012, however, numbers have since recovered.

Yet these fees may already appear exorbitant to many, especially students from developing countries. My recommendation is that embassies seek to develop scholarship programmes for their students, in collaboration with universities and the private sector.

Compared to English universities, Scottish universities are free for pupils who have lived in Scotland for the three years prior to university and are also free for EU students on the basis that EU law does not allow discrimination against those from other member states; those holding British passports, however, must pay the full tuition fees. It should also be noted that Scotland’s education system differs in certain other key respects. In this article, I cannot go into much detail, but I will mention that students in Scotland who wish to attend university take ‘Highers’ and ‘Advanced Highers’ (instead of AS- and A-levels). Standard undergraduate degrees are also four years long, which includes a Masters (three-year BA/BSc degrees are available.)

Of course, in choosing a university one should look not only for academic excellence, but also for what other experiences the university can bring in terms of its location and extra-curricular activities. The Times ranks universities also according to what it calls ʻstudent experience.̓ In its last guide, Coventry University was number one, followed by Bath, Keel, Surrey and East Anglia (www.thetimes.co.uk/gooduniversityguide).

As I have pointed out in this article, much relevant information is available online; furthermore, many universities arrange open days for prospective students, and admissions tutors are usually available for one-on-one consultations throughout the year. Every university also publishes a prospectus with full details of admission criteria and descriptions of all the courses offered.  Given the life-changing nature of the choice at hand, all these sources of information should be investigated as thoroughly as possible.


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