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Education System in the UK

The UK is globally recognised for its teaching excellence. Let’s find out why.

When it comes to world university rankings, the UK has a proven track record. In the 2017-18 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, University of Oxford and University of Cambridge rank number one and two, with Imperial College London at number eight. Across all global ranking systems, criteria and fields of study, the UK ranks highly for quality of education, student satisfaction and global reputation.

Then there’s the UK’s reputation for innovation and world-class research, where you will benefit from the latest facilities alongside a long-standing academic tradition. Many students choose the UK higher education system to perfect their English and improve their employability.

How it works

Within the UK, responsibility for education is delegated to each of the four jurisdictions: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. There are differences between the four countries in the educational systems in place, the qualifications offered, and how these are regulated. The differences are most pronounced in general and secondary education. As a result, there are several different qualifications and credit frameworks.

Qualifications framework

There are two parallel frameworks for higher education qualifications of UK degree-awarding bodies, one that applies to Scotland and one that operates in the rest of the UK. These are:

  • The Framework for Higher Education Qualifications of Degree Awarding Bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (FHEQ)
  • The Framework for Qualifications of Higher Education Institutions in Scotland (FQHEIS).

These frameworks are the principal national reference points for academic standards in UK higher education. There are 160 universities and colleges in the UK that are permitted to award a wide variety of degrees to suit most educational aspirations.

Tuition fees

Tuition fees for UK higher education and further education courses vary, depending on:

  • where in the UK you choose to study (there are different rules for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales)
  • your study level.

For undergraduate students, tuition fees range from £10,000 a year to about £18,000 a year, depending on the course and the institution. For all postgraduate courses, tuition fees vary by course provider.


Scholarships, grants, bursaries, fellowships, financial awards, loans – there are many financial support options for international students who wish to study in a UK course. Demand for scholarships is always greater than supply; to maximise your chances, you should apply as early as you can.

You can review the particular websites of the schools and universities you are interested in. The right time to look for financial support is well in advance of the start of the course. It can be very hard to find funding, particularly midway through the academic year.

Teaching and learning style

UK education has a reputation for excellence and most international students highly rate the quality of teaching they receive. You can expect to be taught in many different ways. Most students attend lectures and seminars and they sometimes have tutorials and workshops, too.

During a UK course, you are likely to be given great freedom to explore your own ideas and to be creative. You may be expected to be an active member of the teaching and learning process, where you will do your own research or work in groups with other students for some projects. UK universities encourage the development of critical and analytical thinking in every subject, which can be a little daunting for some international students at first. However, this develops a deeper understanding of the subject at hand and the communication skills needed.

UK education is very interactive, too. Tutors will encourage you to share ideas and may organise activities, such as debates, discussions and quizzes. The idea is that by having fun and getting involved, you will learn more successfully. This way of learning might feel daunting at first, but students should receive lots of support from their tutors and with a little time should soon feel at ease.

The Prepare for Success website is a great resource that provides students with lots of information about what classes and teaching in the UK are like, and advice on how to succeed.

Higher education

Most destinations offer a variety of pathways for both domestic and international students to make the transition into further education; these programs are typically referred to as either pathways or foundation courses.

Higher education courses can be taken by students to earn an advanced degree and continue their studies in the UK. There are three main types of higher education, which lead to bachelor, master and doctoral degrees.

Bachelor or undergraduate degrees

Academic study in undergraduate degrees is designed to help students gain a thorough understanding of a subject. Degrees are classified as either ordinary or honours. An ‘ordinary’ degree is usually a three-year full-time course, whereas an ‘honours’ degree is usually a four-year full-time course.

Postgraduate study

If you are finishing your bachelor degree, how do you know if undertaking postgraduate study in the UK is the next step for you? Deciding to go on to postgraduate study is a big step. It means sacrificing more time and staying out of the workforce a bit longer, but it can also be a very worthwhile investment in the long term.

Pathway programs

There are also many pathway programs into higher education for international students including foundation studies and English language preparation programs. These ensure students receive the extra support and assistance they need to succeed.

Academic year

In the UK, the standard academic year starts in September or October and runs until June or July. Some courses are more flexible, however, and offer a range of start dates. The typical deadline for applications for undergraduate university entry commencing in September is in the preceding January of that year. There’s also a smaller January intake that has limited undergraduate, master, PhD and foundation courses available. Private pathway providers also may offer additional start dates throughout the year.

Learning English

The UK is the top destination worldwide for English language study (Study Travel Magazine, December 2012). The UK has long been at the forefront of language teaching and pioneered many of the techniques now used around the world. The emphasis is on learning through fun and participation instead of just listening to the teacher. Classes involve games, problem solving and discussions. Students might also listen to songs, watch television or read magazines to practise their comprehension skill. Many English language courses are also offered by universities and colleges to help international students prepare for a degree course in the UK. Universities use the term ‘pre-sessional English courses’ for these degree preparation programs.

The UK Government has announced important changes to language testing for visa applications, reducing the number of tests accepted for visa purposes and bringing in new requirements for the way the tests are administered. IELTS, the world’s most popular high-stakes test of English for higher education and global migration, has been approved for all UK visas that require applicants to provide proof of their level of English.

IELTS Academic, IELTS General Training and IELTS Life Skills are accepted by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) as proof of English proficiency. However, the student’s purpose for being in the UK dictates which IELTS test they need to pursue.

After graduation

Many international students want to stay in the UK after they graduate and put the skills they have learnt into practice. Students may be able to extend their stay if they meet the requirements for the schemes that the UK Government operates.

The schemes that are most significant for students who have finished their studies include the following.

Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur)

Aimed at recent graduates and postdoctoral researchers who have Tier 2 immigration permission, who have “genuine and credible business ideas and entrepreneurial skills” and whose UK college or university is prepared to endorse them under this scheme to help them develop these ideas.

Tier 1 (Entrepreneur)

This requires the student to invest in a business in the UK. The student doesn't need a sponsor or an endorsing body.

Tier 2

The main route if the student would like to take up employment. The lowest wage for this scheme is £20,800, but this depends on the job and the wage can be higher. In most cases, employers are not required to show that they advertised the job and that no one else could do it (resident labour market test) before they can offer it to the student.

Tier 5 (Temporary Worker)

These schemes allow students to undertake specific types of work in the UK for a period of one or two years, depending on the scheme. They must have a Tier 5 sponsor under the scheme of relevance to the student. The student’s Tier 5 sponsor must issue a certificate of sponsorship to them before they can make their immigration application.

Student route Doctorate Extension Scheme

This allows a new PhD graduate to spend one year in the UK after their studies to undertake employment or self-employment. The student must apply before they finish their doctorate.

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