The UK is one of the world's most popular study destinations and it's not hard to see why. Students can take their pick of globally-renowned universities and recognised qualifications, knowing that they'll receive a first-rate education
Studying in the UK you don't need to worry about the recognition of your hard-earned qualifications, 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 institutions 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 subject areas, such as:
- Cranfield University, which is recognised as a specialist postgraduate technology and management institution
- Falmouth University, which is known as a specialist arts college
- Harper Adams University, which delivers agricultural and rural education
- Royal College of Music, which focuses on musical education.
The UK has a well-deserved reputation for educational excellence and this is reflected in university rankings. Currently 84 UK institutions feature in the QS World University Rankings 2020, with four ranked within the world's top ten. These include:
- the University of Oxford (fourth)
- the University of Cambridge (seventh)
- University College London (UCL, eighth)
- 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 varies between different universities, but usually runs from September to June. A number of postgraduate programmes 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 2020.
Location is an 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. 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 Hedd the UK higher education system's official candidate verification service.
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.
Degree courses in the UK
There are hundreds of Bachelors courses available, in a variety of subjects. Undergraduate degrees are generally divided into four types:
- Bachelor of Arts (BA)
- Bachelor of Science (BSc)
- Bachelor of Education (BEd)
- Bachelor of Engineering (BEng).
Programmes take three years to complete when studied full time. In Scotland undergraduate degrees take four years.
At undergraduate 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 differ depending on where you choose to study. For admission onto a Bachelors programme you'll 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.
To search for a Bachelors programme in the UK, visit UCAS - Search for courses.
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 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 qualifications
- conversion courses
- Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Bar courses
- teacher training.
Doctoral degrees, also known as PhDs, are the highest level of qualification that a student can achieve and are 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 you need to have a good undergraduate degree and a relevant Masters qualification. In some instances you may also need relevant work experience and international students need a solid grasp of English.
Tuition fees for international students can be considerably more than for UK or European Union (EU) students.
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 EU's education training and youth support programme Erasmus+ (confirmed for the 2020/21 academic year). 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.
These vary across institutions so it's important to contact each university individually. 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.
According to UCAS, postgraduate tuition fees can range from £4,900 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 £9,000 and in Northern Ireland the limit is £4,275. 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 course 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.
Eligibility criteria will apply but take a look at the different ways you could fund postgraduate study.
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 £348 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 (TB) test results, if you are from a country where you are required to take a test.
The post-study work visa was reintroduced in September 2019, after being previously abolished in 2012. The visa, aimed at international students who have completed their studies at a Tier 4 sponsor university in any subject, at undergraduate level or above, allows graduates to work, or look for work, at any skill level for a period of two years after completing their course.
This route will be available from the 2020/21 intake of students onwards. After two years, students are able to switch onto the skilled work visa if they find a job that meets the requirements of the route.
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 EU.
Find out more at GOV.UK - Student visas.
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.
There is no centralised body that covers postgraduate applications in the UK and in the majority of cases you'll 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.
Following the UK's exit from the EU on 31 January 2020, this information is likely to change. Please check official sources for the most up-to-date information.