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Overview of Higher Education

There are over 150 universities and higher education institutions in the UK for students to choose from. Watch this video to see some examples.
Did you know that the UK has some of the oldest universities in the world, dating back to the 12th century? These older universities tend to be integrated within towns and cities like Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and St Andrews. The wonderful old architecture of these historic buildings has been preserved for everyone to enjoy, but inside you’ll find the modern facilities that you need for your studies. More recently, a number of universities such as Manchester, Cardiff, Reading and Queens University Belfast, were founded in the 19th century, to meet the needs of a rapidly industrialising UK. These are often called red-brick universities, as many of their buildings were constructed using red bricks.
During the second half of the 20th century there was further growth in higher education, and universities such as Lancaster, York, Warwick and Strathclyde were established. Many of these are campus universities, with most buildings in one location. Wherever you find yourself, in the city or on a campus outside town, you’ll find lots of green spaces to relax alone, or with friends. Many visitors are surprised that you can find parks and gardens, even in the centre of our largest cities. When you are studying, you’ll find you are working in a number of different ways. You may be attending lectures. Lectures are large classes usually lasting for about an hour.
The lecturer will guide you through the subject and introduce you to new concepts and theories. Students are expected to make notes, and ask questions, either during the lecture or at the end. In seminars or workshops, you are likely to be working in small groups, discussing issues or trying to solve problems. Often the lecturer or tutor will set up an activity at the start, leave you to work alone in your groups, and then summarise or review at the end of the session. Tutorials are often one-to-one meetings with a tutor, giving you the chance to ask questions and receive feedback about your own work.
Many courses offer practical classes, where students may conduct experiments; carry out survey and project work, and get first-hand experience of how the theory and principles of their discipline are applied. Some courses offer practical experience in industry, within a working environment, under the supervision of experienced staff. These are sometimes called sandwich courses because students have a placement in the workplace in between their university studies, so the workplace training is like the filling in a sandwich.
In addition to all these situations in which you are supervised or directed by university staff or others, you will be expected to work independently. That requires a lot of self-discipline. You’ll have to manage your own time and decide on the best environment in which to study. This might be in the university library, in your room or a quiet place elsewhere. You’ll find out more about these different ways of study during the course. Finding time to relax is important. Universities provide a range of sports and social facilities for their students.
So you can play sport informally, with some friends, or you can join a university sports club - either way playing sport is a great way to refresh yourself both physically and mentally. Another good way to relax and make friends is to cook and eat together. Most students love trying food from different countries, so why not show your new friends how to make a special dish which you can eat together.

There are over 150 universities and higher education institutions in the UK for you to choose from and it’s important that you find the one which best suits your needs. These institutions vary considerably in appearance, depending on their history and the locations of their buildings, but generally fall into one of the three categories. Watch the video to find out more.

If you have not yet applied to a UK university, this PDF provides some information on English language and academic conditions.

Undergraduate degrees

After leaving school, most students going to university study for an undergraduate or first degree. A degree course is usually made up of modules (some compulsory, some optional) that add up to a full degree, called a bachelor’s degree.

There are other options too. Foundation degrees and diplomas are shorter courses and designed to develop your skills and subject-specific knowledge before you move into a full degree-level course.

A bachelor’s degree usually requires three years of study in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; in Scotland courses generally take four years. For some subjects, such as medicine, courses are longer.

For a bachelor’s degree, you can concentrate on a single subject, combine two subjects (joint honours) or choose several subjects (combined honours).


Depending on your course, and after your final examinations (finals), you’ll receive a bachelor’s degree, for example Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BSc), Bachelor of Engineering, Bachelor of Education (BEd), Bachelor of Law (LLB), Bachelor of Medicine (MB). The abbreviations are often used – you’ll hear people saying things like ‘I have a BA in History.’

We have given an indication of degree programme classifications in this PDF, however this differs between universities and you should always check the official guidance given by the university you are attending.

Post-graduate degrees

If you already have a first degree, you might be thinking of studying for a master’s degree (MA, MSc, LLM, etc.). A doctorate – the best known one is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) – is awarded in many different fields from the arts and humanities to the science disciplines. You can think of these as a ‘second’ degree and a ‘final’ degree respectively.

A master’s degree takes between one and two years; a doctorate will much take longer. In general, a master’s is more career-orientated, while a doctorate is for people preparing for research-orientated careers or in academia.

This PDF will provide you with additional information about the higher education system in the UK.

A lecturer with 2 students standing around a dressmakers mannequin draping fabric

Teaching methods

Teaching methods vary depending on the course and the university you choose, but most will include some or all of the following; lectures, seminars, tutorials, practical work, workplace training, independent study. These methods are discussed in detail during this course, but this PDF provides an overview.

A note on scholarships

Scholarships to study in the UK are available, but they are limited in number and there is a lot of competition for them. You should consider sources of scholarships from your own country as well as those available in the UK. Many scholarships from UK sources are aimed at student from specific programmes, or on specific courses, and are provided by a wide range of organisations.

These UKCISA webpages provide information about the different sources of scholarships.

You can also find more information about scholarships, funding and visas on the below British Council web pages:

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