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UK Graduate Study: Why so Popular?

By Guest Writer

Updated March 20, 2021 Updated March 20, 2021

Why is the UK such a popular destination for international graduate students? The British Council's Neil Kemp, Suzanne Alexander and Colin Beaver offer some suggestions, and provide an overview of the types of graduate program available in the UK.

With 126,000 international students enrolled on graduate programs in the UK, the country has never been a more popular choice at graduate level. 

If you choose to follow a graduate program in the UK, you become part of a tradition dedicated to excellence and innovation, that has produced over 70 Nobel Prize winners in science alone. The UK's academic sector:

  • Invented the principle of the world wide web
  • Researches and develops more leading medicines and drugs than rest of the European community
  • Carries out nearly 6% of the entire world's research and produces 8% of global scientific publications

Not bad for a country with just 1% of the world's population!

Who studies in the UK?

Some 126,000 international students are currently making the most of graduate opportunities in the United Kingdom. They come from over 200 countries, with the largest national groups originating from the US, Greece, China, France, Germany, Malaysia and India.

There are more than 20,000 postgraduate courses available in the UK, covering a wide variety of subjects. Some are taught courses while others consist of a period of supervised research.

The most popular graduate subjects for international students in the UK include economics and politics, business and management, mathematics and computing, sciences and engineering, education, law, media studies and art and design.

For graduate research, clinical medicine, all engineering disciplines, and bio and physical sciences - as well as the previous topics - are very popular. Other special research areas that are attractive internationally include Islamic and other religious studies, international politics and history with special regional focus (e.g. South and South East Asia, North America, Europe, etc), English and linguistics.

And because there is such a vast range of programs offered by universities and colleges in the UK, you will certainly be able to find a qualification that is directly relevant to your own aspirations and background.

Why study in the UK?

Recent international market research indicated that international students chose the UK as a top study destination first and foremost for the academic quality of study on offer and also the high international recognition of the qualifications obtained.

This is not surprising given the efforts that are made to assure the quality of UK higher education: the UK's Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) oversees the quality of courses and academic standards.

All higher education institutions are subject to a range of detailed checks, with quality ratings published for all to see. For example, the Teaching and Research Assessment ratings allow you to compare the relative strengths of each institution's provision. The reviews and quality audits are published and are available on the QAA website.

During your postgraduate programme, you will be able to take full advantage of the strong research base of British universities. These are designed to help you quickly build a formidable array of leading-edge knowledge and skills.

You will also benefit from the strong links between institutions, the business world and the professions. The quality of UK research is also rigorously assured: the main government bodies conduct a UK-wide review of research quality and full details of this are published online.

Useful information

Graduate study in the UK is intensive, so master's degree programs can be relatively shorter than those offered in other countries. The good news is that this can make the cost of achieving a graduate qualification in the UK lower as you are paying fees and living away from home for a shorter period of time.

If you are already working, you will be away from your employment for less time too. Annual fees for postgraduate programmes in the UK may initially look high but the total costs of your study may then be lower than in countries where the study period is longer.

Scholarships are available to students planning to take a postgraduate course in the UK. The Chevening Scholarships, funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and administered by the British Council, are prestigious awards available to international students.

Chevening Scholarships are offered in over 150 countries and enable talented graduates and young professionals to become familiar with the UK and gain skills which will benefit their countries.

The Chevening programme currently provides around 2,300 new scholarships each year for UK postgraduate studies. A range of other scholarships, many from UK higher education institutions directly, is also available. Some information on these is available at the Education UK website but you might also like to check with the institution of your choice directly.

A graduate degree is awarded after the successful completion of either a taught course or a period of research or a combination of both. Taught courses are available at masters, diploma and certificate level, and may also be included in some doctoral level programmes.

It is often possible to study in a variety of different and flexible ways. For instance, some programs now allow you the option of studying in your home country by distance learning.

Taught courses

Taught master's degrees in the UK can be categorized into one of three types:

  • Courses which give you a deeper knowledge in a specialized area of your chosen subject
  • Courses which deal with your chosen subject in a different context (for example, an interdisciplinary master's program such as women's studies, which often has elements of history, literature, sociology, film, etc.)
  • Courses specifically designed to help you transfer across disciplines (e.g. if you have a background in science or mathematics, you could move into computer science via a 'conversion' master's).

Taught master's courses normally consist of lectures, seminars and classes with students submitting a dissertation as the final part of their study program.

Depending on the program of study, the dissertation could be based on a practical project, such as designing software, or addressing a real problem in an organisation, or it could be a piece of research.

Assessment may include formal written examinations, as well as essays, reports, individual or group projects and presentations.

Many international students come to the UK to study for Postgraduate Diplomas or Certificates, which are available in many subjects, such as education and management.

These qualifications may also act as a 'bridging' course at postgraduate level, to provide access for students who do not qualify for direct entry to masters courses. It is often accepted as a professional qualification in the relevant field.

Many students, for example, choose the UK to study education or medical and dental postgraduate qualifications. To gain access to a postgraduate programme, you will usually need a first degree in a relevant subject that is assessed as equivalent to that from a British institution.

In some cases you may be required to register initially for a postgraduate diploma as the first stage of a full master's program.


Choosing to study for an MBA in the UK is a giant step towards investing in your future employability through enhancing your range of management skills.

The MBA is designed for well-qualified managers who wish to add value to their practical experience by gaining an in-depth understanding of up-to-date approaches to management and its development.

You do not need business studies as your first degree but you are normally required to have some appropriate work experience. As a result, your educational experience will be enriched by studying with high-calibre students.

Research degrees

Whether at master's or doctoral level, research programs involve individual supervision by a member of academic staff who has great expertise in your chosen subject area.

This emphasis on personal guidance and independent study is a key feature of research degrees in the UK and it will give you high-level skills suited to careers in business, applied research and higher education.

A research master's program culminates in a thesis or dissertation of 30,000 or more words. The thesis must present original findings. Programs include the MPhil and the MA/MSc by research, and will normally take one to two years.

The PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is a research program normally extending over three or four years, usually culminating in a thesis of 70,000 or more words. The thesis must present original findings that are, in principle, publishable. In some subjects such as art, the thesis may be replaced by an original major work.

The British PhD offers the following opportunities to international students:

  • You will produce an original piece of research, which will mean an important boost to your career.
  • You will gain new competencies including enhanced analytical and critical thinking and presentational and communication skills.
  • You will receive a sound training in research methodology and practice.
  • You will become part of the prestigious global community of UK postgraduate alumni.

Many PhD programs include some taught courses in the first year, to help you deepen your subject knowledge and develop new technical skills vital for successful research. In science and technology, research students are often members of a research team led by professors or research directors.

New types of doctoral programmes have also been developed aimed at experienced professionals in industry or fields such as education, engineering and clinical psychology. A particular example of a new approach is the New Route PhD and details of this can be found at

UK graduate programs delivered internationally

UK universities have been at the forefront of developing postgraduate programmes that are delivered globally through some form of distance learning. These programs are subject to the same rigorous quality assurance regime as those offered in the UK and are extremely popular - nearly 200,000 students are currently enrolled on a UK higher education program outside the UK.

Some of the most popular are offered through the UK's Open University and the University of London's External Degree Programs.

You can also obtain further information from The British Council office in your home country. Many have a wide range of books, directories, brochures, guides, prospectuses and CD-ROMs for you to browse with specialist information staff available to assist and provide additional information and advice. 

This article was originally published in November 2012 . It was last updated in March 2021

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