The Ultimate Guide to Studying at University in the UK

Thinking of applying to the UK in Autumn 2021 as an international student? Here's everything you need to know.

Whether you’re new to thinking about applying to the UK, or you just want to confirm you’ve made the right choice for you, here’s everything you need to know about Britain as a study destination.

Why study in the UK?

For a small country, the United Kingdom is a remarkably diverse place, with a wealth of distinct cultural experiences on offer. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering how such a small island can boast so many different accents, you’ll know what we’re talking about!

For starters, the UK itself is made up of four separate countries: England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. 

14% of the UK’s total population were originally born overseas, and London itself is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse cities in the world (alongside New York and Toronto).

This wealth of diversity is reflected in courses and degree options on offer to students in Britain, too. There are a number of different kinds of campuses and universities, and many different degree pathways available to students. So no matter what kind of student experience you are after, you are sure to find something in the UK for you.

On top of that, universities in the UK have world-leading reputations: in 2020, 10% of the world’s top 500 ranking universities were UK institutions. Whilst we wouldn’t recommend making a university decision based solely on rankings, employers around the world hold UK degrees in high esteem.

This reputation is what makes the UK such a popular university destination with international students. Around 20% of all students enrolled at UK universities are from abroad (in comparison, only around 5% of students at US universities are foreign).

This richness and diversity extends to academic faculty, too: around 30% of university professors, lecturers, and tutors are from other countries.

Finally, UK universities consistently report student satisfaction ratings of around 90%, which is the highest student satisfaction ranking for English-speaking countries.

UK academia at a glance

The UK has a fairly unique academic culture. The most striking thing about the UK is subject specialisation.

Put simply, students in the UK must select their subject/major before they apply. And, unlike countries like the US where you apply to a university as a whole, and then select your classes and major, applications to UK universities are made to specific courses.

What does this mean? Well, it means that you could get rejected from one course, but accepted to another, even within the same university. It means that students tend to only study classes directly related to their chosen discipline/field.

The downside is that it can be tricky to change your major once you’ve begun: oftentimes, it’s a matter of dropping-out and re-applying the following year, or waiting on a postgraduate conversion course (specialist master’s degrees which effectively convert your undergrad from one subject to another).

On the upside, if you’re sure about your commitment or passionate about your field, you won’t have to worry about filling up credits with unrelated classes! As we’ll touch on in the next section, it also means UK degrees tend to be shorter than their US or European equivalents.

Picking your study pathway: types of degrees

UK universities tend to separate degree courses into 4 categories:

  • Training degrees prepare you for a very specific career path upon graduation (think medicine, engineering, and architecture), for which studying the subject at university is the only pathway into the field.
  • Vocational degrees train undergraduates for a specific employment sector (like education/teaching, law, graphic design, and business studies). Though these degrees offer intensive training, they’re not the only entry route into these careers.
  • Degrees in the Sciences focus on hard, in-demand skills and tend to be characterised by a high amount of contact hours, and a good balance of practical and academic training.
  • Degrees in the Arts & Humanities specialise in transferable skills, and are renowned for developing students’ abilities to think critically, communicate, research, and argue. They tend to require a lot of self-directed, independent study.

In the UK, most undergraduate degrees last for 3 years, and the academic year is generally broken up into terms/trimesters.

The exception is Scotland, where undergraduate degrees last for 4 years. A little more hybrid and flexible, you’ll still apply to a specific course but you’ll have the option to take classes outside of your subject specialisation, which can be an excellent way to diversify your skillset, discover new areas of interest, and add breadth to your CV.

Training and vocational degrees also tend to skew on the shorter end of international averages: for example, becoming a licensed doctor in the UK takes between 5-10 years (compared with 10-14 years in the US).

Selecting your student life experience: types of universities & campuses

Ancient universities

These are historical institutions founded before 1600. Often located in quaint small cities, they’ve got a longstanding sense of tradition and academic excellence. It’s common for these to be collegiate, meaning that your academic and social life is organised around the college you belong to (think of it like a smaller university within the wider university). Examples include the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, and St Andrews.

Note: Oxford and Cambridge never take part in Clearing, though Cambridge now considers applications through Adjustment.

Red brick universities

These are large research universities, usually located in big cities. Founded between 1600 and 1950, they’re known for their especially diverse student populations and the rich cultural experience and professional opportunities that come from living in a big city.

Many are part of the Russell Group, a badge of quality akin to the US Ivy League. It’s common for students’ social lives to revolve a little more around city nightlife and culture, and a little less around university-specific activities. Examples include the universities of Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, and Glasgow.

Plate glass universities

These are newer institutions, granted university status (or founded) in the 1960s. Often located in rural towns, they’re the epitome of the campus college experience: large, bustling campuses crawling with students from all over!

Despite being quite young, many are renowned for research and teaching excellence.

Social life is student-led, and there’s often an abundance of societies and clubs to get involved in! Examples include the universities of York, Lancaster, Warwick, and Sussex.

New universities

These were granted university status in the 1990s. Most were established previously, and had thriving reputations as polytechnics or further education colleges. Examples include UCLAN, the University of Cumbria, UWE Bristol, and Sheffield Hallam University.

Since many used to be specialist colleges, many tend to be specifically well-regarded for vocational degrees (think nursing, sports rehab, graphic design, and education).

In terms of student experience, new universities span both extremes of the spectrum: some are small and rural, others sit alongside flagship institutions at the heart of bustling city centres.

Accommodation

Most UK universities guarantee on-campus accommodation (commonly referred to as ‘halls’) to first year students, including international students. Students in their second year onwards tend to make their own off-campus arrangements.

When it comes to university-managed accommodation, you’ve got a couple of different options to suit your needs and budget, including:

Corridor rooms vs flats/townhouses

If you’re after the quintessential college experience, you can’t go wrong with corridor rooms: it’s the floors of traditional dorms that you’re used to seeing in movies and tv shows.

Note: Unlike the US, it’s uncommon for students to share bedrooms in the UK. You’ll generally be guaranteed a room all to yourself, though facilities (like the toilets, showers, and kitchens) will often be communal.

Single gender vs co-ed

Co-educational accommodation means that the students you live with will be a mix of all genders. That being said, most universities (and private providers) offer a limited amount of single-sex accommodation.

Catered vs self-catered

Catered students have access to university dining halls and cafeterias (like US students do), whereas self-catered students live in halls with fully equipped kitchens and have to cook for themselves.

Note: Some universities offer international student halls: you don’t have to apply to international accommodation if you’re an international student yourself. In this context, it usually simply denotes that you’ve got the option to live exclusively with fellow foreign students, should you prefer that.

Hesitating? Living with other international students means meeting people from an exciting mix of cultures, so it can be a great learning experience. It might also help you feel supported, as they’ll be facing many of the same challenges as you.

On the other hand, if you’re hoping to work on your language skills, or maybe even thinking of emigrating long-term to this country, you might find you prefer the opportunity to live with home students, and truly immerse yourself in your host culture!

Private halls

If you aren't guaranteed university-managed accommodation, the UK also has plenty of alternative options available to students. The most popular is private halls, which emulate the experience of university rooms (popular providers across the UK include Unite Students and City Block).

If you opt for private landlords, ask the university admissions office (or the students’ union) for a little guidance to avoid any cons or rip-offs: they’ll normally have dedicated web pages helping students navigate organising their own off-campus accommodation.

Tuition fees & living costs

  • Student fees in the UK are capped at £11000 per academic year (though in most cases it’s £9250) for home students, and loans are available through UK Student Finance.
  • For international students, each university can set its own fees. These tend to start around £10000 but can go up to around £40000 per year. This makes the UK more expensive than most other countries in Europe, but often still considerably cheaper than the US.
  • European passport holders are unfortunately no longer eligible for home fee status as of 2021 (with the exception of Irish citizens). EU students now qualify as international students, and are subject to the same fees and requirements.
  • What about cost of living? Compared to every other country in the world, the UK as a whole ranks as number 28. That means the cost of day-to-day life (that’s everything from food to transport to rent) is significantly higher than in most Asian, African, and South American countries, but cheaper than the US, Australia, Japan, and a number of Scandinavian and European countries, too.
  • When it comes to accommodation, the cost will vary wildly depending on which option you select (or which rooms are still available): an en-suite, catered room in a small townhouse, for example, can cost as much as double as a self-catered corridor room with shared facilities.
  • What about earning money? International student visas do permit students to work part-time during their studies in the UK, however both the number of hours a week and the jobs you can do are restricted, so you’ll need to check your visa conditions thoroughly.

Note: The cost of living will vary wildly from place to place. It should come as no surprise to learn that rent in London will be considerably higher than in rural Wales, for example. However, some things are generally cheaper in big cities than they will be in small collegiate towns, including groceries and public transport.

Are you thinking about applying to the UK through Clearing or Adjustment? Find all the information you need on our Resource Hub.