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In terms of popularity with international students, the UK overall lags only behind the considerably larger US – unsurprising given the strong global reputation enjoyed by UK universities. An impressive 71 UK universities feature in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings®, with four currently ranked among the world’s top ten.
The University of Cambridge is currently ranked the third best university in the world, while its historic rival the University of Oxford is at number six. Filling the places between are the UK capital’s top two, University College London (UCL) and Imperial College London. Overall, there are a total of 29 UK higher education institutions in the global top 200, and 61 in the top 700. A shortage of options, then, will not be an issue if you’re looking to study in the UK.
Higher education in the UK varies depending on the constituent state (England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland), though the systems are fairly similar. Undergraduate degrees at universities in the UK typically last three years, although courses in Scotland are usually a year longer. Some UK universities also offer fast-track undergraduate courses which can be completed in as little as two years. You could also choose a vocational-based ‘foundation degree’, which typically lasts one or two years and is similar to the US associate’s degree.
Students in the UK start their higher education with a bachelor’s degree, although for some subjects you can enroll on an undergraduate degree that leads directly into a master’s program – usually four years long. Master’s programs last one or two years, and PhDs at least three. Courses are taught in English at most universities in the UK, with some Welsh-language programs offered in Wales, Scottish Gaelic-language programs in Scotland and Irish Gaelic-language programs in Ireland.
Search and apply to thousands of courses in the UK >
Combining countryside and cosmopolitan cities, the UK has plenty to please both nature lovers and culture vultures. British filmmakers, actors, musicians, designers and writers are known and respected across the globe, and this is reflected in strong arts and cultural scenes across the country, with a huge range of galleries, museums and venues to match. At the ‘lower’ end of the culture spectrum, you can embrace the national passion for sport (especially football/soccer) or the classic British pastime of just going to the pub.
Universities in the UK are also microcosms of entertainment in themselves, full of opportunities for getting involved in sports, theater, volunteering – and just having a good night out. Most major UK cities and universities are highly multicultural, providing opportunities to get to know not only British culture and people, but also to encounter people and traditions from around the world.
Find out more about some of the UK's top student cities...
London, the UK’s capital city, ranks among the world’s top student cities, and has an impressive 18 universities in the QS World University Rankings®. Home to 10 million people, this vast metropolis is the financial, cultural and political center of the country. London life is extremely fast-paced, so if you don’t like crowds or noise, it might not be the place for you! It has a (deserved) reputation for being expensive, so may also not be the best choice for those on a tight budget – but those who do study in London all agree the city is worth every penny in the opportunities for culture, fun and networking it offers.
Home to many of the best libraries, museums, art galleries, nightclubs and theaters in the UK, and the hub of many of its most competitive professional sectors, London has more to see and do than you’ll have time to get to the end of – even if you stay long enough to complete a PhD. Indeed, there are few places in the world which can guarantee as exciting and diverse an experience – both academically and otherwise.
Among universities in London are several of the world’s best, with UCL (University College of London) and Imperial College London both making the top 10 of the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings. Other top London universities include King’s College London (KCL) (19th) place and the most specialized London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) (68th).
Discover the top 10 universities in London >
Manchester is famed for its music scene – few cities have produced as many prominent bands and acts (such as the Sex Pistols and Oasis) in the past 30 years. Manchester is also home to the Manchester Evening News Arena, the largest music arena of its type in Europe, seating over 20,000 people. The city also has many other major venues for entertainment, most concentrated in the Northern Quarter, popularly considered the cultural and musical heart of the city. On top of this, the area around the Northern Quarter and Manchester itself is awash with over 30 smaller venues, where signed and unsigned artists of all genres perform – keeping Manchester’s music scene vibrant, evolving and an indelible part of the city’s character.
Canal Street, the center of Manchester’s gay community, is one of the city’s liveliest nightspots, and, with more than 500 licensed premises in the city, Manchester is something of a party town – perfect if social life is an important factor for you. But it’s not just about the drinking and the dancing; if you’re a football (soccer) fan, you’re probably well aware of Manchester’s historic sporting reputation. Manchester United F.C. is the most decorated club in the country, while local rival Manchester City F.C. is one of the wealthiest in the world.
There are plenty of university campuses and clusters of student accommodation to choose from in Manchester, and it may be particularly appealing to Chinese students, thanks to its well-established Chinatown area (Manchester has the third-largest Chinese population in Europe). Manchester should also be on your shortlist if you’re a fan of architecture – you’ll find a variety of styles walking around in the city, from Victorian, Gothic and red-brick buildings to contemporary skyscrapers, hotels and apartments, along with the sustainable One Angel Square – one of the largest of its kind in the world.
Among universities in Manchester, the top ranking institution is the University of Manchester (also home to the well regarded Manchester Business School), which stands at the lofty position of 33 in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings. If you want to get more of a feel for the university, you could tune in to its student radio station, Fuse FM, or perhaps listen to MMU Radio, run by students from nearby the Manchester Metropolitan University (ranked 701+). Also just outside the city center is the University of Salford (651-700), not far from the BBC’s new MediaCity complex, and a cluster of museums and galleries including the Lowry Center and Museum of Science and Industry.
Read a student’s guide to Manchester >
Now the UK’s second largest city, Birmingham came to prominence during the industrial revolution. Today it is a thriving commercial hub, and home to the UK’s largest shopping area outside of London (which, in the local branch of Selfridges, boasts one of the most striking buildings in the country). Birmingham (or Brum, as it known affectionately by locals) is also one of the most multicultural places in the UK, which means you’ll probably find few cities can offer as varied and colorful a cultural experience.
Birmingham’s six universities also make it the largest center of higher education and academic research in the UK outside of the capital, while the ‘Big City Plan’ is currently underway to make Birmingham one of the top 20 most livable cities in the world within 20 years. Meanwhile, you can enjoy Birmingham’s thriving art, music and literary scenes, including the prestigious City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and a range of other cultural institutions.
The highest ranking of universities in Birmingham is the University of Birmingham, ranked 62 in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings, along with Aston University (ranked 399=) and four other universities including the Open University’s West Midlands regional center.
It may have lived for many years in the genteel shadow of Edinburgh (which, incidentally hosts the UK’s fifth highest ranking university, the University of Edinburgh), but Scotland’s largest city has in recent years shaken off its former gritty reputation to emerge as one of the UK’s most dynamic up-and-coming cities.
With historic architecture, distinctive local traditions and museums to rival any city in the UK, Glasgow now also has enough trendy bars, restaurants and gig venues to keep even the most hardened hipster entertained (plus the world’s tallest cinema). PETA has declared the city to be the most vegan-friendly in the UK. And, while Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland, it is not as overrun by tourists as Edinburgh and has a significantly cheaper cost of living. It is perhaps because of this that Glasgow has the largest student population in Scotland (and the second largest in the UK, after London).
In keeping with the city’s general upwards trajectory, universities in Glasgow have been climbing the rankings in recent years. The University of Glasgow now stands at 51 in the QS World University Rankings (up three points from last year), while the University of Strathclyde ranks at 257.
Yes, Oxford and Cambridge are two separate cities each with a distinct history and character. But these two cities are also bound together in the collective imagination as semi-mythical academic enclaves with a profound historic affinity, as well as an ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek rivalry. Both are old medieval towns, built on rivers and situated towards the south of England not far from London, both are relatively quiet and peaceful, and both are completely dominated by their universities – the two oldest in the Anglophone world.
Oxford and Cambridge are both collegiate universities, and their constituent colleges loom large over the city centers, which you’ll also notice are teeming with the bright young attendees (usually on bicycles when they’re not relaxing on the river in a punting boat). While Cambridge is home to a large cluster of high-technology industries such as software and bioscience, earning it the name ‘Silicon Fen’ (a play on Silicon Valley), Oxford has a long history of brewing and has been an important center of motor-manufacturing for years, with the main production site for Mini cars, now owned by BMW, based there.
Both remain among the most famous and prestigious universities in the world, with the University of Cambridge ranked 3rd in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings, and the University of Oxford 6th. And, of course, to list their notable alumni would have an effect somewhat akin to snow blindness!
Oxford or Cambridge? How to choose >
The UK has a centralized university admissions service which handles all undergraduate applications – the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS). This is used by both domestic and international students to apply for courses at universities in the UK. You’ll need to register on the UCAS website before completing and submitting your application. The website has all the details on how to apply, what to include, how to track your application and how to respond to your chosen universities. It also has a guide for international students, including information about visas, student finance and more.
Once you’ve submitted the application, UCAS will send it to the institutions you’ve chosen, and then email or mail you back their response. If you’re accepted by an institution, you’ll get an ‘offer’. This can take the form of a ‘conditional offer’ which means the place is yours if you can fulfill set admissions criteria, or an ‘unconditional offer’ which means you’ve already reached their criteria. If you’re unlucky, you’ll receive either a ‘withdrawn application’ response, which means either you or the university has withdrawn your course choice, or an ‘unsuccessful application’ response, which means the university has decided not to offer you a place.
For schools, English language centers, most further education courses and some postgraduate courses, there is no centralized application system so you’ll need to apply directly to the institution that provides the course. You can usually find application forms on the website.
All students are required to write a ‘personal statement’ explaining their reasons for wanting to study their chosen subject. If you are applying to more than one institution (as is usual), make sure not to mention any by name, as they all will receive the same personal statement. The UCAS website has a lot of tailored advice for writing personal statements, but as a rule-of-thumb, international students are encouraged to mention why they want to study in the UK rather than in their home country, how their studies will help them in the future, and describe their English language skills (perhaps by mentioning any English courses or tests they have taken).
As well as completing the UCAS process, international students may need to send copies of their academic transcripts to their course provider. This is usually because UCAS can only send some results from awarding bodies (such as the International Baccalaureate) directly to your chosen course providers. For most other international qualifications, the universities will ask that the results are sent directly to them.
There are different application forms and deadlines depending on the type of course you’re applying for. The UCAS website is usually very clear on deadlines, and it’s important to make sure you don’t miss these, as some universities may not consider late applications.
Though UCAS processes the applications, decisions about admissions requirements are made by individual universities. So, if you have any questions that are not about the technicalities of application, you should direct them to the university concerned. Before applying, make sure you read up on the course requirements, tuition fee costs and course details, emailing the university if you need more information. Remember that requirements may vary depending on your country of residence.
The level of UK tuition fees varies depending on your home country. EU students are charged the same as students from within the UK, while those from outside the EU typically face higher fees. Maximum undergraduate tuition fees at public universities in the UK also vary depending on the region: for England and Wales, universities can charge up to £9,000 (US$14,840) per year, for Northern Ireland it is £3,575 (US$5,900) and Scotland does not charge tuition fees at undergraduate level for domestic or EU students (except those from the other three parts of the UK).
International students (those from outside the EU), can expect significantly higher tuition fees, varying between about £7,000 (US$11,490) and £35,000 (US$57,450) per year depending on the course. At postgraduate level, there’s no set maximum amount, and for both domestic/EU and international students, tuition fees tend to be higher than at undergraduate level. Again, this varies depending on the degree and university.
Read more about how much it costs to study in the UK >
There are many financial support options for international students who wish to study in the UK. EU nationals may also qualify for help from Student Finance England (SFE). UK student financial aid is applied for separately from the UCAS application. Many international students are eligible for scholarships, grants, bursaries, financial awards and loans, run by governments, charities and other organizations. If you’re studying at postgraduate level in Manchester, Warwick or Nottingham you may also be eligible to apply for one of the current QS Scholarships, while MBA candidates can apply for a relevant QS MBA Scholarship.
The Ministry of Education in your home country or even your local British Council office may have information on sources of support. For most schemes, competition is very tough, so you should apply early as you can to maximize your chances. Depending on your nationality, you may also be eligible for a loan or financial support from the UK government.
Always make sure you find out what is and is not covered by your financial support scheme so you can prepare to cover any other costs yourself. It is recommended to look for financial support before you start your course as it can be very difficult to find funding mid-way through the academic year.
Read more about postgraduate funding options in the UK >
While private healthcare in the UK can be expensive, all international students on full-time courses lasting at least 6 months are entitled to use the National Health Service (NHS) which provides free registration and consultation with an NHS doctor (GP) or nurse, free hospital treatment when referred by your GP, and a standard charge for each item of prescribed medicine (except in Scotland where prescriptions are free).
You may be able to register with the NHS at your university health center. Otherwise, register at the GP center closest to your accommodation or university. The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) is also a good resource for details about healthcare, student support and working during or after your studies.
Most international students who study in the UK live in accommodation provided by the university, with main accommodation types being halls of residence, student houses and student flats. These can be catered or self-catered, with home stays (staying with a UK family) being fairly uncommon.
You can also choose from a range of private accommodation, either living by yourself or sharing with a group of friends. Try to secure your student accommodation before you arrive in the UK. International students are usually given preference for places in student halls, while there are plenty of websites to help with house-hunting. The Student Union and the Student Housing Office at your university should also be great sources of information on how to find accommodation.
You’ll probably find your UK university will hold a series of welcome events for international students, including social activities, workshops and ‘orientation sessions’, with a chance to explore the campus and local area. You can also join in with ‘Freshers’ Week’, a week-long (or sometimes fortnight-long) calendar of events designed to welcome all new students (‘fresher’ is an informal term used to describe new university students). There will also be a Freshers’ Fair, which is a chance to join student clubs and societies that interest you, including sports, art and social groups.
It is recommended that you open a UK bank account as soon as you can after your arrival in the UK. This can take a few weeks, so make sure you have access to enough cash until then. Residents of some countries may be required to register with the police.
Find out how to get a UK student visa >
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