This article is adapted from the QS Top Grad School Guide 2014/15, available to read online here.
Despite its relatively small geographic size, the UK is a big player on the international stage, in terms of its economy, cultural influence and also its higher education system. Second only to the US as a study abroad destination, the UK boasts an impressively large selection of universities ranked among the world’s best. It’s also well-known for its innovation and leadership in multiple industries, from engineering and finance to fashion design and music.
For those looking to undertake graduate study in the UK, here’s an overview of top UK universities, common application requirements, scholarships for international students and tuition fee information.
Top 10 Universities in the UK
Based on the QS World University Rankings® 2014/15
Cambridge (East England)
London (South East England)
Oxford (South East England)
London (South East England)
London (South East England)
Bristol (South West England)
Manchester (North West England)
Coventry (West Midlands)
Deciding where to study in the UK
Comprised of four countries, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the UK has a highly impressive total of 69 universities represented in the QS World University Rankings® 2014/15, more than any other country except the – considerably larger – United States. Four of these UK universities are ranked among the world’s top 10, and 29 are in the top 200.
As of 2012, due in no small part to the stand-out international reputation of UK universities (and despite the nation’s famously rather dreary weather), over 420,000 international students from 200 countries were studying in the UK. Of these, more than 199,000 were postgraduate students, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). And, according to the 2013 HE Academy Postgraduate Taught Experience survey, 93% of taught postgraduate students in the UK rated the quality of teaching positively.
For many, the appeal of studying in the UK is largely focused on future prospects; a UK degree is likely to be held in high esteem among potential employers worldwide. But for many, the experience of immersion in British culture and life are also a large part of the attraction. A multicultural and relatively compact country, the UK offers opportunities to explore a range of landscapes and locations, and to get to know people from many different backgrounds.
The UK countryside deserves a mention, with highlights including the famously rugged Yorkshire moors; the stunning vistas of the Lake District; the Somerset Quantocks with their grazing wild horses and abundant wildlife; and the atmospheric meadows and woodlands of the Sherwood Forest, still full of the legendary tales of Robin Hood.
What else can you expect from UK life? Well, it’s fair to say the British are known for their love of a good pub, a rather dry and self-deprecating sense of humor and a predilection for sport, music festivals (there are now hundreds every year, including the likes of Glastonbury, V Festival and Bestival), and the classic, yet greasy, “full English” fried breakfast.
Top student cities in the UK
Rated consistently as one of the top cities in the world for students, coming third in the QS Best Student Cities 2015 (behind Paris and Melbourne), the UK capital offers an experience which is distinctly different to anywhere else in the country. A city of over eight million people and one of the most-visited places on the planet, London is an immensely diverse center of culture, commerce and education, offering something new and exciting every day. Whether you’re into history, theater, art, fashion, food or music, you’ll find endless entertainment – from grand (usually free) museums to trendy pop-up shops, and from no-frills music venues to high-end theatrical productions.
Other cities to study in the UK
While London’s magnetic pull continues to swell its international population, many would say the real British charm and character is to be found outside the capital. In addition to the world-famous Oxford and Cambridge, other historic towns and cities known both for their universities and their rich history include Edinburgh (26= in the QS Best Student Cities 2015), St Andrews, Durham, York and Bath.
If you’re looking for multiculturalism and a dynamic urban environment without the London price-tag, then perhaps Manchester, Glasgow, Bristol, Birmingham, Sheffield or Leeds may be right for you – cities all markedly cheaper than the capital and all with a university ranked among the world’s top 100. Also, this year for the first time, the city of Coventry entered the QS Best Student Cities, owing to the area’s large student community (the University of Warwick is very nearby) and a great reputation for producing employable graduates!
To find out where all 69 internationally ranked universities in the UK are located, check out this article.
Types of postgraduate degree in the UK
In the UK, master’s level degrees are typically categorized as either “taught” or “research” programs. Taught programs are often just one year in length, consisting of lectures, seminars, exams, assignments and dissertation work. The workload is likely to be more intensive than at undergraduate level, and students will be expected to pursue independent work, but with a significant amount of class time and supervision; this will vary by subject.
Research-based master’s degrees usually take longer, often two or three years, and require students to complete in-depth independent research within a specific field – similar to the work required for a PhD, and resulting in the production of a thesis or dissertation report. A PhD takes longer again – at least three years, but often longer. Usually a master’s degree is needed in order to apply for a PhD position, but this is not always the case.
For more information on finding a PhD in the UK, see this article.
Applying for graduate study in the UK
Unlike the undergraduate procedure for study in the UK, there is no centralized organization that deals with postgraduate applications to UK universities. Instead you’ll most likely be required to apply directly to your chosen university, so application processes will differ accordingly.
The easiest way to apply for graduate study at universities in the UK is usually through an online submission process, which often will allow you to track the progress of your application once sent. You will usually be required to include a personal statement, along with supporting documents such as evidence of your previous qualifications and two references.
As an international student you’ll also need proof of your English language proficiency (i.e. TOEFL/IELTS test scores) and a copy of your passport. PhD applicants may be asked to present a research proposal. Some universities may require you to attend an interview, either in person or via phone/internet, in addition to your written application.
Tuition fees and living costs
Postgraduate tuition costs for international students vary significantly depending on the subject and institution, but as a rough idea you can expect to be charged from around UK£6,000 to £20,000 per year (~US$9,000-$30,000), with the majority of programs priced between UK£10,000 to £12,000 (US$15,000-$18,000). However, those wishing to study a subject like medicine at one of the leading universities in the UK, for example, should expect to pay much more, with top prices coming in at around UK£38,500 (US$57,700).
You will also need to consider living expenses, including the costs of accommodation, food, travel and entertainment. The UK Border Agency recommends that you budget around UK£1,020 (~US$1,500) per month if living within London and UK£820 (US$1,200) outside of London.
Unfortunately, student loans are not usually available to master’s students, whether from the UK or overseas. However, other graduate funding options may be available, including scholarships, bursaries, grants and financial awards. If you’ve lived in the UK for three years prior to application then you could also be eligible for a bank loan.
UK scholarships for international students
Scholarships for international students looking to study in the UK are numerous, but also highly competitive. This shouldn’t deter you from applying to a scholarship scheme, however, and if you are unsuccessful you can always seek alternative postgraduate funding options (more details here).
The good news is that scholarships for graduate study in the UK are generally more widely available than undergraduate UK scholarships. While opportunities are sometimes offered by external organizations and foreign government schemes, the majority of graduate scholarships for international students are offered by individual UK universities, the British government and via the EU (e.g. Erasmus+).
Almost all UK universities offer opportunities to gain funding, which are worth looking into. The amount you may be eligible for depends on where and what you choose to study, as well as your current financial situation. Types of support include full studentships with additional grants for maintenance and housing, bursaries for those in particular financial need, and paid teaching or research assistant positions – the latter are especially common for students at PhD level. Awards of up to UK£3,000 (US$4,500) for high-achieving students are also available from some institutions. To find these opportunities, you should visit the website of the university you’re interested in attending, and search for information about funding for graduate study which is open to international students.
You can find a full list of scholarship opportunities and alternative options on the British Council’s education website, and you may also want to look at our selection of articles listing UK scholarships;
- Scholarships to Study in the UK
- Scholarships for Students from Developing Countries
- Scholarships to study in the World’s Best Student Cities (featuring scholarships to study in London)
- Or discover even more international scholarships here.
Due to limited opportunities, you should apply for UK scholarships as early as possible to maximize your chances of gaining funding.
UK student visas and permits
To study in the UK as an international student from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) or Switzerland, you’ll require a Tier 4 (general) student visa. You should apply for your visa at least three months before you’re due to travel and you will need to have received an unconditional offer from your chosen university. You’ll also need to demonstrate proficiency in English, as well as proof of sufficient funding, which must already be approved. As well as a current passport, tuberculosis test results are also required from residents of some countries.
With a general Tier 4 student visa, international students are able to work either within their student union or the National Union of Students during their studies. Students may also take up additional work, but are restricted to working up to 20 hours a week during term-time; full-time work is permitted during vacations.
Upon graduation, international students are required to leave the country within one to four months, depending on the length of your program. You may apply to have your visa extended within this time.