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, 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 UK universities fall into one of six categories:
The central co-ordinating body for universities in the United Kingdom is Universities UK.
The universities in the United Kingdom (with the exception of The Open University) share an undergraduate admission system operated by UCAS. Applications must be made by 15 October for admissions to Oxford and Cambridge (and medicine, dentistry and veterinary science courses) and by 15 January 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.
One-half of universities have lost confidence in the grades that are awarded by secondary schools, and require many applicants to sit for a competitive entrance examination. According to the Schools Minister, “strong evidence has been emerging of grade inflation across subjects” in recent years.
Some subjects, particularly where highly competitive or that lead to a professional qualification, require that students be interviewed prior to being offered a place on the chosen course.
The vast majority of United Kingdom universities are government financed, with only two private universities (the charitable University of Buckingham and profit-making University of Law) where the government does not subsidise the tuition fees.
British undergraduate students and students from other European Union countries who qualify as home students have to pay university tuition fees up to a maximum of £9,000. A government-provided loan may only be used towards tuition fee costs. Welsh undergraduate students studying in a Welsh university have to pay a maximum university tuition fee of £1,200. However, if they choose to study outside of Wales they are subject to the same tuition fees as students from that country. i.e. if a Welsh student studies in England they pay £3,125. Scottish and European Union students studying in Scotland have their tuition fees paid by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland. Students are also entitled to apply for government-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 National Health Service (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 living in the UK, if they are from non-European countries, have to pay the same fees as overseas students at a very high rate, even if they have been in the UK for more than 3 years, without Indefinite Leave to Remain. Such students are not eligible for loan from the Students Loan Company either.
On 9 December 2010 the House of Commons voted to increase the cap on tuition fees to £9,000 per year.
Students in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are also eligible for a means-tested grant, and many universities provide bursaries to students with low financial capabilities. Non-European Union students are not subsidised by the United Kingdom government and so have to pay much higher tuition fees.
In principle, all postgraduate students are liable for tuition fees—though a variety of scholarship and assistantship schemes 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).
In the years following the end of the Second World War, local education authorities (LEAs) paid student tuition 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. In 1980, the level of grant increased from £380 to £1,430.
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 2,000,000 (around a third of the age group), up from around 1,300,000.
In 1989 the levels of maintenance grants were frozen at £2,265 – which since 1985 had been means tested – but a system of student loans was introduced to provide for additional funding. Initially loans of up to £420 were available, and could be taken out by all students. The costs of tuition continued to be met in full for all domestic students.
Following an investigation into the future of universities, the July 1997 report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, chaired by the then Sir Ronald (later Lord) 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, tuition fees were still paid in full by the local education authorities, 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, though they still had to pay the new £1,000 tuition fee. From 1999, the grant was abolished altogether.
The abolition of tuition fees was a major issue in the 1999 Scottish Parliamentary 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 tuition fees was introduced in England. These variable tuition fees of up to £3,000 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 tuition fees charged by universities—nearly all charge the maximum tuition 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. The UK'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. 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 newspaper league tables that rank universities by teaching and research. Only four universities in the UK have never been ranked outside the top ten, with Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, and LSE having become constant features at the summit of national ranking tables, while Cambridge, has never been ranked out of the top two and Oxford University has been only once out of the top two.
The UK'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 Supplement in 2009, these being Cambridge (2nd), 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. 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), Imperial College London (27th) following in the top 30 and The University of Manchester (38th) following in the top 50 [ARWU 2011 report]. The University of Edinburgh has been ranked 20th in the World in the 2011 QS world University Ranking. Whilst, the University of Warwick and the University of York ranked 3rd and 6th respectively in the 2012 QS Top 50 under 50 universities.
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 generally the case for universities in most European countries, such as Italy or Spain. For this reason most universities in the United Kingdom provide (or at least help organise) rented accommodation for many of their students, particularly in the first year; some British universities provide accommodation for the full duration of their courses. For this reason the lifestyle of university students in the United Kingdom can be quite different from those of European universities 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 further 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 (part of the University of London) was founded with Articles of Association and is actually a company registered at Companies House, having no Royal Charter or founding Act of Parliament. The University of Buckingham was the only private university in the UK until 2012.
Another anomaly is that Warwick University, originally to be named the University of Warwickshire when it was established in 1965, is several miles from Warwick, the county town, and closer to Coventry in West Midlands. Following the county boundary changes, Warwick University's campus straddles the Warwickshire and West Midlands boundary, although many of its students live in Leamington, Warwickshire.
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.
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, Esq, 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), MSci (York).
The oldest British universities are typically denoted by an abbreviation of their Latin name. 'Oxon', 'Cantab' and 'Dunelm' for Oxford, Cambridge, Durham 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:
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.
In 2011, a merger was proposed between two universities in Scotland: University of Abertay Dundee and University of Dundee. A merger occurred between three universities in Wales: Swansea Metropolitan University and University of Wales joined with University of Wales, Trinity Saint David - the name of this new institution. In 2011 a merger was proposed between two other universities in Wales: University of Glamorgan and the University of Wales, Newport, which became the University of South Wales in April 2013.
A study by the Office for National Statistics has found that, although university graduates are consistently more likely to be employed than other people, they are increasingly likely to be overqualified for the jobs they do hold. The study also found that the type of degree is significant. On average, medical undergraduates earn the most at £45,600 per year, while media and information studies undergraduates earn the least at £21,000 per year. Finally, a degree from a Russell Group university is considerably more valuable than one from another university.
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