Blog 🍎 School 6th October 2021

The Ultimate Guide to Studying at University in the UK

Profile image of Zahra Onsori
Zahra Onsori University Content Writer
Career readiness. Campus options. Entry requirements. Student finance. BridgeU’s ultimate guide gives you everything you need to know to prepare students for their application to a UK university degree.

Oxford. Cambridge. UCL. Durham. Edinburgh. These are just some of the prestigious names that might spring to mind when contemplating a degree at a UK university.

A recent BridgeU survey confirmed that the UK is still one of the five most popular destinations for international students, and with good reason. The UK’s global reputation for higher education continues to be outstanding and this is reflected in its university rankings. For example, the UK currently has 4 universities in the global top 10, as well as nearly 30 universities in the top 200.

A degree from a UK university is recognised by employers globally, and is one of the reasons why it continues to be a highly sought destination for international students. The UK also boasts a diverse range of universities, offering both quiet campuses and bustling cities.

In addition, students in the UK continue to report relatively high levels of satisfaction in spite of the disruption caused by COVID-19. 

But researching the UK university system can be a daunting process. For such a small country, the United Kingdom has a remarkably diverse range of university options, and choosing the right one isn’t easy. Also, as we’ve already discussed, these institutions are renowned globally, so it’s understandable for some students to feel intimidated.

So how should they begin the process of researching and applying to a UK university?

In this guide, we’ll discuss what career pathways a UK degree could unlock, explore the different types of university campus, help you to understand university entry requirements and give you the lowdown on student finance for a UK degree. 

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Part 1: UK university career prospects

Let’s begin with the most important consideration when choosing a university degree.

Career prospects. 

Teachers, students and parents will understandably be thinking about which undergraduate courses are the most likely to strengthen employability after graduation, whilst also providing a valuable and memorable university experience. When researching potential UK universities, it’s natural to ask the following questions:

  • Will this degree be relevant to the world of work?
  • Is this a degree which looks good on a CV?
  • Is this degree likely to provide a good starting salary as a graduate?
  • Will this degree equip students for new and emerging job markets?

We’ve broken down UK university degree paths into four groups, in terms of the courses they offer and the general career paths a student can expect.

Training degrees

These are arguably the degrees that could make a UK university graduate the most job-ready. UK training degrees include courses such as medicine, law, engineering and education.

Employment prospects 

Training-based degree graduates report the highest overall rates of employment. This makes sense when you consider that they are designed to prepare a student for everything they will need to qualify in a particular career path (e.g. solicitor, doctor, teacher).

Things to think about before applying 

An applicant to a UK training degree would need to think about whether the career path is right for them, as many UK training degrees are rigorous, and often last longer than other courses (e.g. architecture and medicine courses last anywhere between six and eight years).

Science degrees

Science-based degrees can cover a whole range of science and engineering courses, and there are over 10,000 to choose from in the UK system. Some UK science degrees offer students a Master’s qualification, pending the completion of a four-year degree course.

Employment prospects 

The specialised skills and competencies which students gain from a science-based degree are in high demand from employers, and a science degree from an institution such as Imperial College London or the University of Manchester looks very impressive on a CV.

Things to think about before applying

A UK-based science degree can be a good grounding for a range of different post-university career paths, so it’s okay if an applicant to a UK science course doesn’t know exactly what they want to do after they’ve graduated.

However, those who do have an idea of what they want to do after university should think about which science degree might be a good pathway into their desired career.

For example…

A physics degree can lead to any number of career paths: business, finance, IT, teaching and more! But if you have students already certain of the career they want to pursue, there are some that would also make a physics degree a really good bet – sound engineering is a good example.

Humanities, social sciences and arts degrees

UK humanities and arts-based degrees cover subjects such as English literature, history, politics and philosophy. They’re usually more research-focused and tend to offer fewer contact hours than science-based subjects.

Employment prospects

When choosing an arts or humanities degree in the UK, it’s important to consider the transferable skills the degree could offer future employers.

Whilst humanities and arts degrees don’t automatically lead to a set career, they foster valuable skills and competencies such as research, critical thinking, debating, writing and copyediting. Arts and humanities degrees can lead to careers in law, marketing, business, politics and media, to name a few.

Things to think about before applying

Students applying to a humanities or social science degree in the UK are more likely to do so because they have a personal passion for that subject – and that’s the most important reason to apply to any university degree!

Applicants keen to boost their employability could also consider undertaking work experience or internships between semesters.

Vocational degrees

Vocational degrees can be similar to training degrees in that they are a useful means of preparing for a certain type of work. However, they don’t constitute the only route into that career.

UK vocational degrees include business studies, graphic design and law.

For example…

A student who wants to be a graphic designer could certainly undertake a vocational course. At the same time, there are art and design degrees like fine art and industrial design that offer an equally valid pathway to professional graphic design.

Employment prospects 

Employment prospects for vocational courses can vary depending on the course, subject area and university. However, since vocational courses are highly relevant to a particular career pathway, they are often a valuable route into a job after graduation.

Things to think about before applying

Students need to think about whether their chosen vocational course is the best route into their preferred career path. It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are several different types of vocational degree on offer in the UK, so in-depth research is a must!

Part 2: The different types of UK degree explained

That’s degree pathways covered. But what about the different types of UK degree? What degree qualifications do university offer, and how can they inform a student’s life after graduation? 

There are, broadly speaking, three main types of university degree on offer. 

Honours degrees

This is the type of academic degree offered by most major universities in the academic system. Students are awarded a bachelor’s degree with Honours upon the completion of a three or four year course (although this can differ depending on the subject studied).

Some common examples of Honours degrees include a BA (Bachelor of Arts), a BSc (Bachelor of Science), a BEng (Bachelor of Engineering), and a LLB (Bachelor of Law).

UK honours degrees can take a number of forms. These include the following:

Single Honours

Courses wherein students study the same subject within the same faculty for the entirety of their course. Course lengths vary from two years anywhere up to six years for professional training degrees such as architecture or medicine.

Joint Honours

A joint honours degree allows a student to study two subjects, similar to the major/minor degree system at a US university. A joint honours degree would be something like “French with Business”, and a student may study both subjects 50/50 or place more emphasis on one subject over another.

Foundation degrees

These degrees are typically training degrees of a less academic nature. They will often be a stepping stone to preparing for an Honours degree.


Again, these courses are at a lower level than Honours degrees, but their successful completion often leads to acceptance on a subsequent degree course.

How is the Scottish university system different?

If applying to a Scottish university (e.g. The University of Edinburgh, The University of Glasgow, The University of St Andrews), it’s important for students to remember that the Scottish system is slightly different to the rest of the UK.

Scottish university degrees are four years in length, and offer undergraduates the chance to study a broader range of subjects before eventually specialising. The breadth of subject knowledge offered by Scottish universities is often highly prized by employers.

Part 3: Exploring the different types of university campus

University institutions in the UK differ widely in terms of their age, size and structure. For example, older collegiate universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Durham are as much as 800 years old. Meanwhile newer, former polytechnic universities were founded as recently as the mid-20th century.

Different UK universities have distinct ‘personalities’ and this means that different institutions will suit different students.

Ancient/collegiate universities

The collegiate universities in the UK include Oxford, Cambridge and Durham. They are in the prestigious Russell Group of universities, and have strong academic reputations across all faculties and departments. They are mainly situated in towns and smaller cities, and the universities are often an intrinsic part of city/town life.

The term ‘collegiate’ refers to the fact that these universities are broken up into smaller colleges, in which students live and socialise. Different colleges have their own traditions and reputations, as well as their own distinct extra-curricular activities.

Note: Students applying to Oxford or Cambridge may be asked to submit applications to, and be interviewed by, individual colleges at these universities. 

Red brick universities

The term ‘red brick’ refers to a family of historic universities that are typically located in the major cities of the UK. These include Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, Manchester and Southampton.

These universities are mostly in the Russell Group, which means that they have a prestigious reputation across all faculties and courses.

Students considering red brick universities might want to think about whether city life is a good fit for them.

Plate glass/campus universities

These are more modern universities such as York, Warwick and Sussex. Many were only granted university status as recently as the 1960s, but several are now highly ranked within the Russell Group of universities. The term ‘plate-glass’ was given to these universities due to their more modern architectural design.

Many of these universities are located on self-contained campuses outside of major towns and cities. This remote setting may be ideal for some students – however it could be isolating for those craving a busy, bustling city environment.

New Universities

New universities are typically institutions which were once classed as polytechnics (institutions focused mainly on vocational study). They are often located in the same city as older, more established universities (for example, Manchester Metropolitan neighbours the University of Manchester; Oxford Brookes neighbours Oxford University).

These universities can be attractive destinations for students looking to really specialise in a particular degree discipline, and can be strong options to consider for vocational study.

Part 4: Understanding UK university rankings

It’s natural to look at a university’s ranking as a measure of its suitability, and its overall quality of education. UK universities are ranked according to a number of different criteria, including:

  • Quality of teaching
  • Research rating
  • Degree classification – the percentage of 1st and 2:1s as a percentage of all degrees awarded
  • Student satisfaction
  • The percentage of graduates entering full-time employment
  • Drop out rates

League table rankings are not limited to these factors. However, these are probably the most significant criteria that students will look at when beginning the university application process.

Some universities, especially those within the prestigious Russell Group, offer an excellent quality of education all across the board. League tables are a useful way of identifying and researching these universities. 

But remember – league tables aren’t everything.

It’s tempting to measure the quality of a university solely by its league table ranking.

But in an increasingly diverse and international higher education market, a student’s suitability for a particular course or university is much more complex, and choosing the right UK university destination is about so much more than league tables.

Here are a few reasons why league tables should be treated with caution.

Different league tables measure different criteria

Depending on the league table you choose to look at, emphasis is placed on different criteria. For example, Shanghai Ranking chooses to emphasise a university’s research score, whilst the Times Higher Education league table tends to place high value on quality of teaching.

League tables do not guarantee specific outcomes

University league tables are signposts, not road-maps. A university’s ranking is no guarantee of a positive university experience overall, or a lucrative career after graduation.

Remember – a person’s suitability for a university is ultimately a question of what they want to achieve from their chosen course, if it can help them reach their career aspirations, and if they enjoy the university’s campus and culture.

In short, the best university experience ultimately comes down to personal preference.

Get in touch

Using the free BridgeU platform and its intelligent matching tools, your students can find their best-fit programmes from over 28,000 universities all over the world

Part 5: UK university entry requirements

“What grades do I need to go to university?” 

The answer to this question will, understandably, inform the final year of a student’s time at secondary school, as their exam, coursework and essay grades will have a direct impact on any university application. Pressure is high. 

For students applying to the UK, most courses will specify minimum entry requirements – i.e.  the grades an applicant would have to achieve to gain entry to the course. Many UK students will apply to university with their predicted grades, which are a major influence on their chance of being accepted.

However, minimum entry requirements aren’t the whole story. Students assessing their suitability for a UK university degree course should also bear the following in mind:

  • The popularity of the course – this will influence the level of competition for places.  
  • What grades yours will be compared to – i.e. the overall academic ability of other applicants.
  • How flexible the university will be if you don’t achieve/possess the required grades.

Take a look at the infographic below. This highlights how entry requirements at multiple universities can be very different. This could be due to the ranking of the university, or it could be based on the overall demand for places/the popularity of the course. 

University entry requirements: understanding the different qualifications


University offers for A-level students are normally expressed as three or four grades, and these are usually the minimum requirements. Some universities will ask that students achieve a particular grade in certain subjects – for example, “AAB with an A in Physics.”

UCAS Points

UCAS points are another common means which UK universities use when making offers to applicants. The UCAS points system can be used to convert A-level grades into an overall mark – for example, two A grades and a B grade add up to 136 UCAS points in the current system.

Note – for more information on the UCAS points system, and how they relate to UK university entry requirements, check out the UCAS tariff calculator.

The International Baccalaureate

For IB students, universities will generally ask for an overall IB score, but they might also have specific requirements for certain subjects taken at Higher Level, or the grades a student has achieved at Higher Level.

So a UK university might express IB entry requirements as something like “665 at Higher Level, with at least a 6 in English” or “Must have Maths and Physics at Higher Level”


For students applying with BTECs, eligibility will depend on which diploma they are applying with (e.g. 90 Credit Diploma, Subsidiary Diploma, National Diploma or Extended Diploma). Some universities allow students to combine A-levels with BTECs, or may allow the two qualifications to be used interchangeably.

Universities will normally ask for BTEC qualifications at a certain level – e.g. DDD = Distinction, Distinction, Distinction;  DDM = Distinction, Distinction, Merit.

Students should check an individual university’s BTEC requirements if applying with this qualification.

Cambridge Pre-U

Again, universities might ask for a set of scores e.g, D1, D2, or may require a student to have attained a certain grade in a certain subject (e.g. D2 in French). Once again, it’s worth checking specific course entry requirements.

Part 6: UK university accommodation 

Students who move to the UK are in luck – they have several great living options to choose from, all of which tend to facilitate making new friends and mixing with lots of different people.

The types of accommodation, and particularly the amounts of each different type, that are available can vary depending on where in the UK students choose to study. For the most part, though, they’ll get a choice from the following options:

University-owned accommodation 

There are a few key concepts for students to be aware of as they compare universities’ accommodation options, so that they know what they’re looking at and what their priorities are. We’ll quickly run through the most important ones. 

Corridor rooms

This is a term often used to refer to the most common accommodation type in UK universities. If students want the quintessential university experience, then these are their best bet: they’re the floors of traditional dorms that students are probably used to seeing in pop culture.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that (unlike in the USA) it’s uncommon for students to share the bedrooms themselves, although other facilities (like the toilets, showers, and kitchens) are often communal. 

Single-gender vs mixed

“Co-educational” or “mixed” accommodation means students of all genders live together, and it’s the most common accommodation type in the UK. Most universities (and private providers) do offer a limited amount of single-gender accommodation, though.

Catered vs self-catered

Catered students have access to university dining halls and cafeterias (like US students do), which generally provide three meals a day. On the other hand, self-catered students live in halls with fully equipped kitchens and cook for themselves.

Some catered accommodation also provides shared kitchens, although they’ll often be somewhat more limited than in fully self-catered buildings. 

Private halls

If students don’t secure university-managed accommodation, the UK has plenty of alternative options available. The most popular is private halls, which emulate the experience of university rooms except that they’re owned and managed by private companies rather than the universities themselves.

Other private accommodation

Most UK university students rent private houses with a group of friends from their second year onwards. Each student has their own room, and general costs like electricity and water bills are usually split evenly between the group.

Part 7: Financing a UK university degree

Financing a degree is often the biggest concern for students as they consider university applications. But help is at hand in the form of a range of student loans, grants and bursaries. 

Applicants to the UK should be aware that universities charge different tuition fee rates for international students compared to students coming from the UK – and these international fees now apply to EU students, too (except those from the Republic of Ireland). 

UK students

Tuition fees and student finance for UK students have undergone several changes in the past ten years. Most notably, UK universities have been allowed to increase average tuition fees to a maximum of £9,250. Different universities charge different amounts, so it’s important to research the tuition fees for a specific institution. 

UK students are eligible for a number of different bursaries, grants and loans. 

Tuition fee loans

These are loans which students can use to cover the cost of their tuition fees. These loans are paid directly to a student’s chosen university. The salary threshold at which students start repaying their loan is currently under review, but as of October 2021 students only repay this money when they start earning over £27,295 a year after graduating (or £25,000 for Scottish students). 

Maintenance loans

Maintenance loans are designed to help students with any living costs while studying at university. A student’s maintenance loan entitlement will depend on their household income. Loan amounts are also higher for students choosing to apply to a university in London. 

But wait…student finance is a bit different outside of England

British students who wish to study in England can only claim the maintenance loan. But for those applying in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, student finance works slightly differently. 


Students can apply for a combination of a bursary (which doesn’t have to be paid back) and a maintenance loan.


Students receive either a maintenance grant or a loan, depending on their family income. 

Northern Ireland

 As well as the standard loan, students applying to university in Northern Ireland are entitled to a maintenance grant. Northern Irish applicants can also apply for a Special Support grant, which is offered to students who are single parents, or who may have a disability or learning difficulty.

International student finance

International students from outside the UK (including those from the EU) pay higher tuition fees. Fees for international students depend greatly on the chosen course or university, but broadly break down as follows: 

  • In the 2021/22 academic year, undergraduate courses start at around £10,000 for a lecture-based degree. 
  • Training-based degrees such as dentistry, medicine and veterinary medicine charge up to £42,000. 

Whilst international students don’t have access to the same sources of funding as UK applicants, there are still a number of different options for financing a UK degree course.

International student loans

There are a number of loans on offer for international students. For example, US students looking to study on a degree abroad can employ for a Foreign Enrolled Loan. Individual countries will have their own loan schemes for their international students, so research is essential.

Scholarships & bursaries

There are a number of scholarship schemes on offer for UK university study. These fall into one of three categories: 

  • University-specific scholarships – individual universities offer financial aid to international students for certain courses. 
  • Country-specific scholarships – international students from certain countries are eligible for select undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships. 
  • Global scholarships – international student scholarships which are not tied to any particular origin country or university destination. These are often very competitive. 

Private funding

Many international students finance university study with the help of family members, and this is a conversation worth having before embarking on a university application. 

Next steps: creating a UCAS profile

Students beginning the UK university application process will need to set up a UCAS account, through which the majority of UK university applications are processed. A UCAS profile requires the following:

  • Personal information and relevant contact details.
  • Academic qualifications
  • Work history
  • The personal statement – this is integral to a UK university application, as it’s a student’s chance to explain why they want to do a specific course, and their aspirations for their future.

Teachers and guidance counselors will also have an integral role in the UCAS process, whether it’s helping students to craft a compelling personal narrative for their personal statement, or writing that crucial school reference for university admissions departments. 

Applying to a UK university isn’t an easy process. Researching and shortlisting the diverse range of courses, campuses and degree pathways is a complex and time-consuming task. Here are some final tips to share with your students as they begin the UK university application process.

  • Research degree courses and degree types carefully – what skill sets and subject interests do you want to explore further in a university setting?
  • Encourage them to treat league tables with caution – they’re not always a guarantee of a university’s compatibility with your professional goals or personal strengths. 
  • Be honest and realistic about eligibility and chance of acceptance. 
  • Don’t be intimidated by the cost of university – there are many forms of financial aid to help students cover the cost of undergraduate study. 
  • Think carefully about what you want from studying in the UK, and why it’s the right path for you. 

Get in touch

Using the free BridgeU platform and its intelligent matching tools, your students can find their best-fit programmes from over 28,000 universities all over the world