Every year around 500,000 international students flock to the UK to further their education and with world-renowned institutions, top-class teaching and globally-recognised qualifications it's not hard to see why
International students are guaranteed a warm welcome in the UK. Unsurprisingly the country is the second most popular study destination in the world behind the USA.
No matter where you study you'll receive a first-rate education and have the opportunity to attend some of the world's most prestigious universities. You don't need to worry about the recognition of your hard-earned qualifications either, as those gained at UK institutions are accepted by universities, employers and governments throughout the world, affording you a huge amount of freedom once you graduate.
Postgraduate courses are also generally shorter in the UK, meaning that you can earn your degree and start your career much faster than in other counties.
What's more, English is one of the world's most popular languages and is widely used in the business sphere, so what better place to hone your skills than in the UK?
Studying in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales also means that you'll get to experience the UK's unique culture. Nature lovers will feel at home within the countryside and coastal towns while city dwellers will find their haven in cosmopolitan cities such as London, Manchester, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. Studying in the UK, you will find that the history is rich, the nightlife diverse and that opportunities to broaden your horizons are endless.
Higher education in the UK is divided into two levels: undergraduate (Bachelors) and postgraduate (Masters and PhDs) and is provided by a number of public and private universities. Other types of institution can include colleges, conservatoires and distance learning universities.
The majority of Bachelors and Masters programmes are studied at universities and colleges. All degree subjects can be categorised into the following faculties:
- Arts and humanities;
- Business and social sciences;
- Technology, science and engineering.
Some universities specialise in selected subject areas, such as Falmouth University, which is recognised as a specialist arts college; the Royal College of Music, which focuses on musical education and Harper Adams University, which delivers agricultural and rural education.
The UK has a well-deserved reputation for educational excellence and this is reflected in university rankings. Currently 71 UK institutions feature in the QS World University Rankings 2016/17, with four ranked within the world's top ten. These include:
- the University of Cambridge (fourth);
- the University of Oxford (sixth);
- University College London (UCL, seventh);
- and Imperial College London (ninth).
The University of Edinburgh also makes the top 20.
For a list of universities and colleges in the UK, see universities and departments.
The academic calendar can vary between different universities but usually runs from September to June. A number of postgraduate programmes now start in January. The main holiday periods are Christmas, Easter and summer, while some institutions include reading weeks.
Choosing a UK university
The UK Russell Group is a list of prestigious institutions such as the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. However, the UK government does not have an official ranking system for its universities. Independent ranking systems such as lists from The Guardian and The Times can be useful. To find out which institutions excel in your subject area, see the QS World University Rankings by Subject.
Location is another important factor when deciding where to study. The cost of living in London and South East England is higher than the rest of England and Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Popular student cities in England include Cambridge, Birmingham, Manchester, London and Oxford. You should also think about whether you would prefer a campus or city experience:
- Campus universities have the majority of their buildings, accommodation and social facilities in one particular area, making getting around easy. Examples of campus universities include the University of Nottingham, University of Warwick and the University of York.
- City universities are more spread out. Lecture halls could be on one side of the city and your accommodation on the other. On the plus side you get more options when socialising. You'll find city universities in Manchester, Sheffield and London.
International students should check that the institution that they're applying to is recognised by the government as a degree-awarding body. To do so, visit Higher Education Degree Datacheck (HEDD).
Other things to consider when choosing a study destination include:
- student satisfaction rates;
- level of student care;
- career/employment opportunities once you graduate;
- teaching quality.
International students may find it useful and cost effective to find work placements in the UK while studying here. These can be organised with independent research and with help from your university careers service.
Students attending a UK university can also take part in the European Union's (EU) education training and youth support programme Erasmus+. The scheme aims to offer study, training, work experience and volunteer placements to millions of students. Opportunities last from three months to one academic year in EU countries.
Your university must have a formal agreement with a partner university in another EU country. Check that your university is involved in the programme and offers the Erasmus+ scheme in your subject. Speak to the Erasmus+ coordinator at your university about available opportunities.
Degree courses in the UK
There are hundreds of Bachelors courses available at a range of universities, in a variety of subjects. Undergraduate degrees are generally divided in to four types:
- Bachelor of Arts (BA);
- Bachelor of Science (BSc);
- Bachelor of Education (BEd);
- Bachelor of Engineering (BEng).
Programmes typically take three years to complete when studied full time, although in Scotland undergraduate degrees take four years.
At Bachelor level you'll be assessed through the completion of assignments, coursework and exams before writing a dissertation in your final year.
Entry requirements are set by individual institutions and will differ depending on where you choose to study. For admission onto a Bachelors programme you will usually need three passes at A-level (or equivalent), which translate into a certain amount of University and College Admission Service (UCAS) tariff points. As an international student you will need to prove your English language proficiency.
Alternative undergraduate qualifications include a foundation degree, Higher National Diploma (HND), Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE) and a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ). Read more about these courses at Guide to qualifications.
There are a number of postgraduate study options for students in the UK. A variety of Masters courses are available and they are split into two types:
- Taught courses - allow you to build on knowledge gained during your undergraduate study through lectures, seminars and practical work;
- Research courses - focus more on independent study and involve less guidance from tutors.
Masters programmes usually last one year full time, although some research-based courses can take 18 months to two years to complete. To gain entry onto a course as an international student you will need:
- to have gained a Bachelors degree (usually completed over three years, except in Scotland where it takes four years) or an equivalent qualification in another country;
- to ensure you can meet the required level of English language to participate fully on your chosen course;
- a copy of your passport.
To find a Masters suitable for you, search postgraduate courses.
Alternative types of postgraduate study include:
- Doctoral degrees (PhDs)
- postgraduate diplomas and certificates
- professional courses
- conversion courses
- teacher training
Doctoral degrees, also known as PhDs, are the highest level of qualification that a student can achieve and are usually more demanding than a Masters.
When studied full time they take three years to complete, if studying part time this increases to six or seven years.
For entry onto a PhD course you need to have a good undergraduate degree and a relevant Masters qualification. In some instances you may also need some relevant work experience and international students will need a solid grasp of English.
Tuition fees for students from the UK and the EU can range from £3,000 to £6,000 per year; however fees for international students can be considerably more.
For more information on Doctoral degrees, see PhD study.
These vary across all institutions so it's important to contact each university individually. European Union (EU) students are charged the same as those from the UK; those from outside the EU will face higher fees.
A PhD costs more than a Masters and fees for an MBA are even higher still.
According to UCAS, postgraduate tuition fees can range from £8,000 to more than £30,000 per year, although on average international students will pay £11,000 a year in tuition fees.
Universities in England can charge domestic and EU students up to £9,250 per year for undergraduate study. In Wales EU students can be charged up to £4,046 and in Northern Ireland the limit is £3,925. Scotland does not charge undergraduate fees for domestic or EU students.
Medicine and dentistry courses usually cost more than other subjects.
You also need to factor in the cost of student accommodation, general living costs and course materials.
Funding to study in the UK
As an international student, you can fund your study through savings, family support and loans. You could also secure grants from your home government to pay for fees and living costs.
Scholarships and awards from institutions and charitable trusts can help, and these vary depending on the university and your personal circumstances.
- Chevening scholarships offer awards to students with leadership potential from around the world to study postgraduate courses in the UK.
- Commonwealth scholarships offer funding to students from particular commonwealth countries.
Make sure you can cover all of your costs when applying and speak to your international office about postgraduate tuition fees and scholarships, which are specific to you.
How to apply
All undergraduate applications are handled by the centralised UCAS system. Students are required to fill out an application form online and write a personal statement, which outlines their reasons for wanting to study a particular course. Most application deadlines fall on the 15 January (or the 15 October of the year before for Oxford, Cambridge and the majority of medicine, dentistry and veterinary courses.)
There is no centralised body that covers postgraduate applications in the UK and in the majority of cases you'll need to apply directly to your chosen university. The easiest way to complete this process is by applying online via the university website and tracking your progress.
Teacher training courses are an exception as you apply through a centralised system called UCAS Teacher Training.
It's best to apply for postgraduate study as early as possible, especially for international students as an offer of a place is needed to arrange student accommodation or get scholarship funding. The majority of courses don't have an official closing deadline with the exception of courses in teacher training, law and medicine.
If you are applying for a course or a job in the UK and have qualifications from another country, find information and guidance on how to satisfy the necessary requirements, at UK NARIC (National Recognition Information Centre for the United Kingdom).
All courses in the UK are taught in English so students must be able to interact fluently and effectively. The most commonly accepted proficiency test in the UK is the IELTS (International English Language Testing System). International postgraduates take the academic test, which is made up of four sections:
The test takes two hours 45 minutes to complete and results are graded on a nine-band scale, with a minimum score of six or seven usually required by universities. Find a test centre near you at IELTS Worldwide Search.
Other English language proficiency tests include:
- Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic);
- Cambridge ESOL.
As an EU citizen, you are permitted to live in any EU country while studying as long as you:
- are studying for more than three months;
- are enrolled at an approved university or other educational institution;
- have sufficient income (from any source) to live without needing income support;
- have comprehensive health insurance cover.
In the UK, student visas are part of the tier 4 visa category. You can apply for a general student visa if you are from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) or Switzerland and you will need to show:
- that you have been offered a place on a course;
- that you have enough money to support yourself for the duration of your study;
- that you can speak, read, write and understand English.
For a list of institutions that sponsor migrants under tier 4 of the visa category, go to GOV.UK - Register of Sponsors (Tier 4).
This type of visa costs £328 if you are applying from outside the UK. You're advised to apply no more than three months before the start of your course and you'll usually get a decision within three weeks. To apply you must provide:
- a valid passport;
- proof of sufficient funds;
- Tuberculosis test results if you are from a country where you are required to take a test.
As an international student coming to the UK, the Home Office also advises you to:
- make sure you are familiar with the conditions of your visa, including the number of hours you are allowed to work;
- declare any sums of cash of €10,000 or more (or the equivalent in another currency) if you are travelling from a country outside the European Union.
Find out more at GOV.UK - Student visas.
A guide to postgraduate study in the UK
Find out about studying in the UK, discover what it's like to live in England, London, Scotland and Wales, and read overviews of the four key subject areas.