There are a number of different types of institutions in the UK higher education sector, which are collectively known as Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). HEIs are legally independent and have their own governing bodies.
In the UK you will find:
There are a large number of universities in the UK, which vary in age, size and location.
Some universities, such as those in Cambridge and Oxford, have been around for hundreds of years, whereas others are relatively new. Institutions previously named 'polytechnics', which tend to be more vocational, have been known as universities since 1992.
Universities have the power to award their own degrees. They receive some funding from the government, and the rest from tuition fees, donations and sponsorship. There are a limited number of privately-funded universities.
Higher education colleges
There are also some colleges that provide higher education. Some have the power to award degrees, whilst others have their degrees validated by a university or professional body. Colleges tend to be smaller than universities and some specialise in specific subjects.
Further education colleges
Some further education colleges also offer higher education courses, which are validated by an HEI or national body, such as Edexcel.
QualificationsHEIs offer a range of courses and qualifications to students. Many courses adopt a modular structure, which allows students to study a number of compulsory and optional modules in different areas of study, adding up to a final number of 'credits'.
The student's performance is normally assessed through a combination of coursework and exams. Commonly, a degree course will culminate in the writing of a dissertation or thesis, which will make up a large proportion of the final mark.
The normal minimum age to start an undergraduate course is eighteen (seventeen in Scotland). Undergraduate degrees are commonly known as bachelor's degrees and are awarded in a specific subject area, such as Bachelor of Arts (Ba) or Bachelor of Science (BSc), often 'with honours', shown as (Hons).
Joint Honours degrees combine two different subjects i.e. English with History.
Undergraduate degrees typically last three years (four years in Scotland). Some specialist degrees, such as medicine and architecture, have a longer duration - usually between five and seven years. Undergraduate degrees are graded in categories - First, Upper Second (2:1), Lower Second (2:2), Third, Pass or Fail.
Sandwich courses are usually undergraduate degree courses, with a year of practical work experience included, possibly abroad, and are normally four years in duration.
Foundation courses take one or two years to complete and usually involve work-based learning. They are often taken in preparation for an undergraduate degree and can lead on to an honours degree.
Other undergraduate qualifications such as the Higher National Diploma (HND) and Diploma in Higher Education (DipHE) usually take one to two years to complete.
Types of postgraduate qualifications include master's degrees, such as the Master of Science (MSc), the PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education) and doctorates (PhDs). Courses can be full- or part-time. Master's degrees usually last one year, or two with research, and students are required to already hold a bachelor's degree. Doctorates usually require another three years study beyond master's level, with taught programmes usually shorter than research-based programmes. Students studying for a PHD will be required to write a 'thesis' - a 40,000-120,000 word research project on a specialist topic.
Teachers at all levels will usually need to hold a first degree and a Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE), or a BEd (Bachelor of Education) degree and completion of an approved initial teacher training course.
English language schools
ApplyingApplications to almost all registered UK institutions and undergraduate courses are processed through the centralised Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS). This includes both UK and non-UK students. It is a good idea to familiarise yourself with UCAS and the service they provide before you begin the application process. The UCAS website features special sections with information for international students.
Each institution handles postgraduate course applications differently and you will need to apply to each one directly. There is no limit to the number of applications you can make to different institutions, but applications can be lengthy. You will normally be required to fill in an application form, either on paper or electronically. See your chosen institutions' websites to find out how to apply.
For more information about postgraduate courses, visit www.postgrad.com
How to apply
Undergraduate applications are made using the online UCAS service Apply. This service will guide you through each stage of the application and will tell you what information is required. Applying can be done individually or through your school, counsellor or agent. You will need to obtain a reference from a tutor before you return the application.
Applying costs £12 if you are only applying to one institution or £23 if more than one. Payments can be made online using debit or credit cards or through your school, if it is registered with UCAS.
Before applying, you will also need to check that UK institutions accept your type of qualifications for entry onto relevant courses. You can check your qualifications at UK NARIC, which will provide you with a statement about the level of qualifications that will be accepted by UK institutions.
If you have suitable qualifications, you will then need to check whether your level of qualifications meets the university entry requirements. You can find out which entry requirements are needed by checking the institution website, contacting them directly or applying for a prospectus. You can also use the UCAS course search. However, you should remember that institutions often make decisions on your overall suitability for the course and not just minimum entry requirements.
There are set dates you need to be aware of when applying to university through UCAS. For most courses, the application deadline will be the 15th of January, but for some art and design courses it will be March the 24th. For medicine, dentistry and veterinary science courses, and all courses at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, this deadline will be earlier - October the 15th. These deadlines apply to all students around the world so it is important you know when they are.
Even after the final deadline, you may be able to apply in 'Clearing'. This is a last opportunity to find a place at a university or college if you have not got a place by the original deadline. If you are flexible about your course options and you have reasonable exam marks you are likely to be able to find a place on a suitable course, though it may not be at your desired institution.
You can see all of next year's deadlines for 2012 applications, and more information about applying, on the UCAS closing dates website.
English language requirements
Your institution may require you to prove your level of English, usually by evidence of test scores from English language exams (such as IELTS, TOEFL, Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) etc). You may also need to prove your level of English for your visa application.
New visa rules coming in to place during 2011 and 2012 will require students studying at degree level to be capable in English in all four areas (reading, writing, speaking and listening) at an 'Upper Intermediate' (B2) level. Universities will be able to vouch for a student's ability if they are studying at degree level or above.
Students studying at lower level courses will need a minimum level of 'Lower Intermediate' (B1). Students studying outside of universities will need to present a test certificate to the UK Border Agency to prove their ability.
UK Border Agency staff will be able to refuse entry to students who cannot speak English without an interpreter, and who therefore clearly do not meet the minimum standard. The UK Border Agency only accepts certain English language tests as proof of English language proficiency; please see the UK Border Agency website for updates.