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Universities in the United Kingdom have generally been instituted by Royal Charter, Papal Bull, Act of Parliament or an instrument of government under the Education Reform Act 1988; in any case generally with the approval of the Privy Council, and only such recognised bodies can award degrees of any kind. Undergraduate applications to almost all UK universities are managed by UCAS - the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Most universities in the country may be classified into 6 main categories:



The universities share an undergraduate admission system which is operated by UCAS. Applications, which may be made on-line, must be made by 15 October of the previous year for Oxford and Cambridge (and medicine, dentistry and veterinary science courses) and by 15 January of the following year for admissions to other UK universities.

Many universities now operate the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS) and all universities in Scotland use the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) enabling easier transfer between courses and institutions.


The vast majority of British universities are state financed, with only one private university (the University of Buckingham) where the government does not subsidise the tuition fees. As universities in the UK are generally public institutions, there is less of a corporate influence, with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge receiving much smaller endowments than many of the larger universities in the United States.

English undergraduate students (and students from other EU countries) have to pay university fees up to a maximum of £3,225 capped (for 2009/10). A state-provided loan is available which may only be used for tuition fee costs. Welsh undergraduate students studying in a Welsh University have to pay a maximum university fee of £1,200. However, if they choose to study outside of Wales they are subject to the same fees as students from that country. i.e. if a Welsh student studies in England they pay £3,125. Scottish and EU students studying in Scotland have their fees paid by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland. Students are also entitled to apply for state-provided loans to pay for living costs, a portion of which is also means-tested. A new grant is also available, which is means-tested and offers up to £2,700 a year. As part of the deal allowing universities to charge higher tuition fees, all universities are required to offer bursaries to those in receipt of the full government grant. Different funding arrangements are in place for students on NHS being eligible for a non-means tested bursary, while healthcare students on degree level courses are eligible for a means tested bursary, and are not eligible for the full student loan as a result of their bursary entitlement.

Students in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are also eligible for a means-tested grant, and many universities provide bursaries to poorer students. Non-EU students are not subsidised by the state and so have to pay much higher fees.

In principle, all postgraduate students are liable for fees, though a variety of scholarship and assistantship schemes exist which may provide support. The main sources of funding for postgraduate students are research councils such as the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) and ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council). Postgraduate students from the UK or EU who spend less than 16 hours per week on course mandated lectures or seminars are also eligible to claim unemployment benefit and housing benefit, provided that they can prove they are available to work 40 hours per week. This is irrespective of whether they are enrolled as studying full-time or part-time. However, typically this is not a common source of funding except for students in the 'writing up' stage of a PhD, where they have completed their main period of registration and are finishing off their thesis.


Funding history

In the years following the end of World War II local education authorities (LEAs) paid student fees and provided non-mature students with a maintenance grant. Under the Education Act 1962 a national Mandatory Award of student maintenance grant was established, payable by the LEAs to students on most full-time courses.

As the university population rose during the 1980s the sums paid to universities became linked to their performance and efficiency, and by the mid 1990s funding per student had dropped by 40% since the mid-1970s, while numbers of full-time students had reached around 200,000 (around a third of the age group), up from around 130,000[citation needed] .

Following an investigation into the future of universities, the July 1997 report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education,[1] chaired by the then Sir Ronald Dearing recommended the ending of universal free higher education, and that students should pay £1,000 towards the cost of their tuition fees, which would be recovered in the form of a graduate tax.

At the time of the Dearing report, fees were still paid by the government, student grants of up to £1,755 (£2,160 in London) were linked to family income, and a subsidised student loan of £1,685 (£2,085 in London) was available. Instead of following Dearing's suggestions, the grant was replaced by the present loan scheme, introduced for students starting in 1998 . There was a transition year when about half the previous means-tested grant was available, although the new £1000 tuition fee still had to be paid. From 1999, the grant was abolished altogether.

The abolition of tuition fees was a major issue in the 1999 Scottish parliament elections, and subsequently was part of the agreement that led to the Labour/Liberal Democrats coalition that governed Scotland from 1999 to 2003.

From the academic year 2006/7, a new system of fees was introduced in England. These variable tuition fees of up to £3000 per year are paid up-front as previously, but new student loans are available that may only be used to pay for tuition fees, and must be repaid upon graduation, in addition to the existing loan. In fact, there is very little variation in the fees charged by universities — nearly all charge the maximum fee on all courses. Instead, the differences appear in the nature and value of various 'access' bursaries that are on offer.


British universities tend to have a strong reputation internationally for two reasons: history and research output. Britain's role in the industrial and scientific revolutions, combined with its imperial history and the sheer longevity of its Ancient Universities, are significant factors as to why these institutions are world renowned. The University of Cambridge, for example, has produced 83 Nobel Laureates to date - more than any other university in the world.[2] The reputation of British institutions is maintained today by their continuous stream of world-class research output. The larger research-intensive civic universities are members of the Russell Group, which receives two-thirds of all research funding in the UK.

The perceived ranking of top British universities is also heavily influenced by the popularity in recent years of league tables which rank universities by teaching and research.[citation needed]

Britain's top universities have fared well in international rankings, where four of them were in the world top ten according to the Times Higher Education in 2009, these being Cambridge (2nd behind Harvard), University College London (4th), Imperial College London and Oxford (joint 5th). These rankings appeared in the THES - QS World University Rankings, a widely acknowledged international ranking of universities.[3] A Chinese 'Academic Ranking of World Universities' also places Cambridge (4th place) and Oxford (10th place) in the World top ten in 2008, with University College London (22nd) and Imperial College London (27th) following in the top 30.[4]

However, if one thing is to be learnt from recent statistics it is that comparisons in a single subject (which is what students are generally interested in) often give quite different answers from overall comparisons. In the 2003 Times Good University Guide, 21 universities come top in at least one subject area, 41 are in the top three in at least one subject area, and 80 are in the top ten in at least one subject area. Part of this diversity stems from the fact that not all subjects are offered at all universities and they thus have no possibility of appearing anywhere near the top of the table.

The most famous example of subject-specific ranking being dramatically different from the overall ranking is probably in history, where Oxford Brookes, the former polytechnic, gained a higher research rating than the University of Oxford in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise, or modern languages, where Middlesex University, another former polytechnic, gained a higher rating than Oxford or Cambridge in the Guardian 2004 university league tables. An oft-quoted example is that of the various disciplines of engineering, where Cambridge and Oxford are not present in any of the top-20s, despite their high overall rankings. This is misleading however, since these universities do not offer any of the specific engineering courses, instead providing a general engineering course (which allows specialization in later years), where they were ranked 1st, 2nd and 5th respectively in 2005. Southampton has a particularly strong showing in engineering where it is the only university in the country to hold the top (5*) RAE rating in all departments within its engineering faculty.


In England and Wales the majority of young full-time university students attend universities situated a long distance from their family homes; this is not true for universities in most European countries, such as Italy or Spain. For this reason most universities in the United Kingdom will provide (or at least help organise) rented accommodation for many of their students, particularly freshers (new entrants). At some universities accommodation may be provided for the full duration of the course. For this reason the lifestyle of university students in the United Kingdom can be quite different from those of other universities around the world where the majority of students live at home with their parents. The introduction of university fees paid by students from 2006 onwards has led many English and Welsh students to apply to institutions closer to their family's homes to reduce the additional costs of moving and living farther away.

The University of London and the University of Wales have since their inception been federal universities; they have a governing body with overall responsibility for the maintenance of standards at the constituent colleges. Recently, however, there has been considerable pressure from the larger colleges to become completely autonomous institutions. An example of this would be the secession of Imperial College London to become independent and autonomous from the federal University of London, or Cardiff University leaving the University of Wales. The University of Wales has responded to this by loosening its structures and taking on more of a confederal organisation.

The London School of Economics (which is part of the University of London) was founded with Articles of Association as it is actually a company registered with Companies House and has no Royal Charter or founding Act of Parliament. The University of Buckingham is the only private university in the UK.


UK universities have a statutory obligation to support their students in the establishment of some form of students' union (sometimes also called a "students' association" or "guild of students", and, in the Scottish Ancients, a Students' Representative Council.) These associations are sometimes members of the National Union of Students of the United Kingdom and / or their local National Union of Students Areas.

Whether or not universities actually do conform to such statutory obligations, and if, for example, the code of practice of the NUS (National Union of Students) is followed when determining the make-up of such bodies is a hotly contested and ambiguous matter. There is no real or well-implemented vetting service used to ensure that, for example, Students' Union Presidents are fairly (or non-discriminatingly) selected – or that a minimal, standardised and regional method of ensuring an allocation of annual university funding is directed towards such students' union bodies.

Post-nominal abbreviations

In common with practice worldwide, graduates of universities in the United Kingdom often place not only their academic qualifications but also the names of the universities that awarded them after their name, the university typically being placed in parentheses, thus: John Smith, BSc (Sheffield). Degrees are generally listed in ascending order of seniority followed by diplomas. An exception may be made when a degree of a different university falls between two degrees of the same university: John Smith; BSc PhD (London), MA (York).

The oldest British universities are typically denoted by an abbreviation of their Latin name. 'Oxon' and 'Cantab' for Oxford and Cambridge are almost ubiquitous except, perhaps curiously, within those institutions themselves. Sometimes, as in the case of 'Lond' for London, the Latin and English abbreviations are identical ('Londin' is also, though more rarely, used). More recently established universities also use Latin abbreviations, especially when they share the name of an episcopal see, in which case they sometimes use the same abbreviation that the bishop uses for his signature. The following are among the most common:

A Latin abbreviation for the University of Wales (Cambrensis) would be liable to confusion with the English abbreviation for Cambridge.

On 30 March 2007 the University of Oxford issued a document entitled 'Oxford University Calendar: Notes on Style', which promulgated a new system of abbreviations for use in University publications. The general rule is to use the first syllable and the first letter of the second syllable. Thus Oxford and Cambridge became 'Oxf' and 'Camb'. The change was controversial (p. 2, n. 1) but was considered essential to preserve consistency since most of the United Kingdom's universities can be rendered only in English. This document also counsels against the use of parentheses.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ "University of Cambridge". Retrieved 2006-06-11.  (archived from the original on 2008-02-13).
    To the Cambridge official count could be added Eric Maskin (Economics 2007), a research fellow at Jesus College in 1976. The official count also excludes Roger D. Kornberg (Chemistry 2006) and Andrew Fire (Physiology/Medicine 2006), postdocs at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 1972-76 and 1983-86, respectively.
  3. ^
  4. ^

External links


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