Hosting over 500,000 international students, the UK is the world’s second leading study destination (after the US), largely thanks to the strong global reputation of UK universities. An impressive 71 UK universities feature in the QS World University Rankings® 2016-2017 (again, only the US has more), and four institutions are currently ranked within the global top 10.
Despite uncertainties following the nation’s referendum on EU membership in June 2016, UK universities are united in their efforts to continuing welcoming students from across the EU and the entire world. Indeed, the country is home to many of the world’s most internationally diverse campuses and communities – and this, for many, is a large part of the appeal of studying in the UK.
Click on the tabs below for information about top universities in the UK, popular student cities, and practical information about applications, costs and student visas – including the possible impact of the UK’s exit (‘Brexit’) from the EU.
Higher education in the UK varies in each 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 – these combined courses are four years long. Taken separately, 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 and Scottish Gaelic-language programs in Scotland.
The University of Cambridge is currently ranked fourth in the world, while the University of Oxford is sixth, followed by UCL (University College London) at seventh and Imperial College London in ninth place.
King's College London (KCL) and the University of Edinburgh are also in the global top 25, while the University of Manchester and London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) are within the top 40. A total of 18 UK universities appear in the top 100, and another 12 make the top 200. A shortage of exciting options will not be an issue if you’re looking to study in the UK.
The strength of UK universities also led to the country being ranked second in the QS Higher Education System Strength Rankings 2016.
Combining varied 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 more relaxed end of the culture spectrum, you can embrace the national passion for sport (especially football/soccer) or the classic British pastime of 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 both UK nationals and students from around the world.
Find out more about some of the UK's top student cities...
The UK’s capital city ranks among the world’s best cities for students, and has an impressive 18 universities featured in the QS World University Rankings®. Home to nine million people, this large metropolis is the financial, cultural and political center of the country. London life is busy and 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 most of those who do study in London will agree that the city is worth every penny in the opportunities for culture, fun and networking on offer.
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.
Universities in London include some of the world’s best, with UCL (University College of London) and Imperial College London both making the top 10 in the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017. Other top London universities include King’s College London (21st in the world), social sciences specialist London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE; joint 37th), and many more.
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. The city is home to an eclectic range of music venues, large and small, ensuring the city’s music scene is as vibrant and fast-moving as ever. The trendy-bohemian Northern Quarter is popularly considered the cultural heart of the city, while the Canal Street area – the center of the city’s gay community – is among its liveliest nightspots.
While Manchester is undoubtedly something of a party town, it’s also big on sports – especially football (soccer). The global fame of Manchester United is difficult to beat, while local rival Manchester City is one of the wealthiest clubs in the world. Manchester should also be on your shortlist if you’re a fan of architecture – you’ll find an interesting variety of styles, from Victorian and Gothic to contemporary skyscrapers. Multicultural in general, Manchester also has the third-largest Chinese population in Europe, and a thriving Chinatown area.
Among universities in Manchester, the top ranking institution is the University of Manchester (which incorporates Alliance Manchester Business School), at 29th in the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017. If you want to get more of a feel for the city, you could tune in to the University of Manchester’s student radio station, Fuse FM, or perhaps listen to MMU Radio, run by students from nearby Manchester Metropolitan University (ranked 701+). Also just outside the city center is the University of Salford (also 701+), not far from the BBC’s MediaCity complex, and a cluster of cultural venues including the Lowry Center and the Museum of Science and Industry.
The UK’s second-largest city, Birmingham rose to prominence during the industrial revolution. Today Birmingham (or Brum, as it is known affectionately to locals) is a thriving commercial hub, home to the UK’s largest shopping area outside of London, and one of the most multicultural places in the UK. It offers thriving art, music and literary scenes, including the prestigious City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and a range of other cultural institutions.
Birmingham’s six universities also make it the UK’s largest center of higher education and academic research outside of the capital, while the ongoing ‘Big City Plan’ aims to make Birmingham one of the top 20 most livable cities in the world within 20 years. The highest-ranked among universities in Birmingham is the University of Birmingham, at 82nd in the QS World University Rankings. Other options include Aston University (ranked 358th) and four other universities, including the Open University’s West Midlands regional center. The city of Birmingham itself was a new entry in the QS Best Student Cities 2016 at 66th.
It may have lived for many years in the genteel shadow of Edinburgh (which, incidentally, claims the UK’s fifth highest-ranked 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 and desirable places to live.
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 lower cost of living. It also 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 joint 63rd in the QS World University Rankings, while the University of Strathclyde is ranked joint 272nd.
Yes, Oxford and Cambridge are two separate cities, each with a distinct history and character. But the two halves of ‘Oxbridge’ 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 fourth in the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017, while the University of Oxford is sixth. And, of course, to list their notable alumni would have an effect somewhat akin to snow blindness!
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 provides 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 your 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 fulfil the specified 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. You might be able to add another choice if you've received decisions from all five universities or colleges and were not accepted, or if you declined the offers you received.
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 providing 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 will all 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.
If you’re planning to study in the UK at postgraduate level, check out the latest edition of the QS Top Grad School Guide.
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: in England, universities can charge up to £9,250 (~US$11,330) per year, and in Wales up to £9,000 (~US$11,020). Scotland does not charge tuition fees at undergraduate level for domestic or EU students (except those from the other three parts of the UK, who will pay up to £9,000 a year). In Northern Ireland, Northern Irish students and those from EU countries pay up to £3,925 (~US$4,800) per year, while students from the other parts of the UK will pay up to £9,250.
International students from outside the EU can expect significantly higher tuition fees, varying between about £7,000 (~US$8,580) and £35,000 (~US$42,900) per year depending on the course. At postgraduate level, there’s no set maximum amount, and for all students (UK/EU/international), tuition fees tend to be higher than at undergraduate level. Again, this varies depending on the degree and university.
The result of the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union (dubbed ‘Brexit’) has led to some uncertainty about whether EU citizens studying in the UK will have to pay higher fees after the UK officially leaves the EU. However, many universities have pledged to keep tuition fees at the same rate for current EU students for the duration of their studies. The UK government has also stated that there will be no immediate change to visa policies, and that EU students are still eligible for the same loans and grants.
You’ll need at least £12,000 a year to cover living costs in the UK (~US$14,720) and will need to budget more to live in London, where rent and other costs are considerably higher than in the rest of the UK. If applying for a visa, you’ll need to meet the financial requirements set by the UK Border Agency (UKBA). One way to save money while studying in the UK is to take advantage of the many student discounts offered by retailers – simply flash your student card to save money!
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. You may also be eligible to apply for a QS Scholarship, 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.
While private healthcare in the UK can be expensive, all international students on full-time courses lasting at least six 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 Wales and Scotland where prescriptions are free).
You may be able to register with the NHS at your university health center. Otherwise, you should register at a GP center close 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.