In this article, we explain how higher education in the UK is arranged: what types of programs exist and what their differences are. The process of admission to English universities and the education system as a whole are described in other articles.

Admission to the UK UK universities Education system

Briefly about education in the UK

  • Prices. Studying in the UK is one of the most expensive options in the world. Tuition costs for higher education range from 18,203-48,541 USD per year, while accommodation will cost at least 14,562 USD. However, bachelor's studies last three years instead of four (as opposed to US education), so the total cost may come out to be lower.
  • Admission. 90% of universities require you to complete a one-year preparatory program known as the Foundation Programme, or to obtain an IB/A-Levels diploma. It is important that the student is 18 years of age by the start of their bachelor’s studies. When applying to a master's program, you often need a GRE/GMAT and a transcript without Cs.
  • Language. For admission to the Foundation Programme, you must pass the IELTS exam with a score of at least 5.0, and for bachelor’s programs — 6.0. But at some universities, the requirements may be higher.
  • Housing. The UK is one of the few countries where accommodation is available to all students right on campus. The exception is London. There are traditionally not enough places in hostels for everyone.
  • Choice of universities. In the UK, you can find universities that are not too competitive, along with those that are almost impossible to get into. Contrary to popular belief, “buying” admission to the best universities will not work.
  • Visas. Graduates can obtain a job search visa (Graduate Route visa) for up to two years.
  • Internships. There are many programs in Britain that allocate an additional year for internships, known as a Sandwich year. Typically, bachelor's studies last three years, but students complete an internship at a company between the second and third years. This helps graduates find jobs faster. There are similar opportunities among master's programs.
Advantages of studying in the UK
  • Age-old traditions. It was on the model of old British universities that the American Ivy League and other famous universities were built. Accordingly, the main feature of education in England is respect for the established rules from centuries ago. At the same time, it cannot be said that the UK education system does not respond to changes — it changes just enough to remain competitive.
  • Cultural diversity. From metropolitan areas like London to historic counties such as Yorkshire, the UK is full of cultural contrasts. According to the latest statistics, more than 600000 foreigners study at British universities, which makes the United Kingdom the second most popular destination for student migration[1].
  • Short programs. In most countries, bachelor’s studies last 4 years, and graduate studies take 2-3 years, while in the UK the terms are often 3 years and 1 year respectively. With such a system, the intensity of the educational process, built exclusively on specialized courses, is significantly higher, and the amount that a student must pay for the amount of study is reduced.
  • Improving language skills. English is necessary for any activity — from business to research. By studying in Britain, you can improve your skills in a natural, English-speaking environment. In such an environment, the knowledge of the language rapidly increases, and many foreign students begin to think and dream in English within a month.
Disadvantages of studying in the UK
  • Compulsory preparation for a university. To meet the requirements for admission to a bachelor's program, citizens of many countries must be trained for a university in one of the following programs: A-Levels, International Baccalaureate, Foundation Programme, or International Year One. Granted, students lose time (an additional year of training before starting a bachelor’s program) and money (the cost of a preparatory program may be even higher than that of a bachelor’s program).
  • Early career planning. For admission to a master’s program, you need a bachelor's degree in a related field. Changing specializations is a fairly rare occurrence at British universities. That is why a prospective student has to choose a profession already in high school or during preparatory programs.
  • The complexity of employment and immigration. In the UK, the transition to a work visa will require a lot of effort from the graduate. In particular, it is necessary to find a job in a licensed company with a certain salary level. This is quite difficult to do: if they have equal qualifications, British citizens receive priority in employment. However, the British government returned the 2-Year Post-Study Work Visa[2] in 2021, which allows graduates to stay in the country and look for work for two years.

Vocational education in the UK

Vocational education in Britain is obtained at FE colleges. They assign the following qualifications:

  • Tech levels
  • Technical certificates
  • Applied general qualifications[3]

These programs are intended for applicants over 16 years of age. Students receive practical skills and after graduation can immediately get a job. According to statistics, most certificates are issued to specialists in the fields of health, arts, media, business, law, information technology, trade, tourism, and engineering[4]. FE graduates have the opportunity to move on to the next level of undergraduate studies.

Qualifications are considered to be a special category of education in Britain, known as apprenticeships. This is an internship in which most of the training takes place on the job — a minimum of 30 hours per week and 30 weeks per year. The student, called an apprentice, receives a salary for his work, enjoying all of the rights of an employee of the company. Only 20% of his time is devoted to classes at a college or university. Higher/degree level qualifications are equivalent to academic bachelor's or master's degrees in higher education. For admission to an apprenticeship program, GCSE/A-Level exams or an Advanced Apprenticeship diploma may be required.

The cost of training is fully covered by the government and employer. However, it is not so easy for foreign students to take advantage of internship opportunities: this requires a work visa. Internship levels, requirements, standards, and governing bodies vary by region[5]. To find out all the details, you need to contact the college, university, or employer.

Bachelor’s programs in the UK — Undergraduate

Undergraduate (bachelor's degree) is the first stage of higher education in Britain. In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, almost all undergraduate programs, with the exception of medicine and architecture, last 3 years. The basic knowledge that forms the basis of the first year of European and American universities, British students receive in preparatory courses. However, training can last 4 years in Scotland.

Undergraduate students conduct both independent and group research. Teachers involve students in discussions, and this contributes to the development of critical thinking. Such education is largely focused on practice that meets the needs of the modern labor market.

At the end of a bachelor's program in the UK, students, depending on the direction of study, receive various qualifications: BA (Bachelor of Arts), BSc (Bachelor of Science), BEd (Bachelor of Education), BEng (Bachelor of Engineering) or LLB (Bachelor of Laws). In addition, all of these degrees are divided into ordinary degrees and degrees with honours. The difference between them lies in the average score of the diploma and the number of teaching hours. For example, to get an ordinary degree, you need to score 150 ECTS, and for a degree with honours you need 180 ECTS. The type of degree will not affect the graduate's employment, but will play a role in the transition to the next level of education. At some universities, a student who completes a bachelor's degree with honours can enter a doctoral program without having a master's degree.

What is ECTS

ECTS is the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System. For each course completed, students earn points called credits. The number of credits depends on the number of academic hours required to complete the program. One academic year (60 ECTS points) corresponds to 1500-1800 academic hours. Without gaining the required number of credits, a student will not be able to complete his studies at a university.

Britain has its own analogue of the system — CATS. CATS credits are converted to ECTS very simply: 2 CATS = 1 ECTS. Because they are more common, in this article we present ECTS.

Campus of Liverpool University
Campus of Liverpool University

Documents for admission

In most cases, applications for undergraduate programs are accepted from the beginning of September to the end of January. For admission to universities in the UK, a student will need a:

Degree titles, depending on the grade point average
Ordinary degreeDegree with honorsGPA
DistinctionFirst Class Honours (1st / 1 / I)70-100%
MeritUpper Second Class Honours (2:1 / 2i / II-1)60-69%
PassLower Second Class Honours (2:2 / 2ii / II-2)50-59%
PassThird Class Honours ( 3rd / 3 / III)40–49%
Other undergraduate qualifications
In many countries, undergraduate education is limited to a bachelor's degree. In Britain, this includes a number of other qualifications:
  • Undergraduate Master's degree. One of the options for implementing integrated master's degrees, which combine bachelor's and master's programs into one training profile. The duration of the program is 4 years. Education begins at the undergraduate level, but upon completion, the student receives a master's degree. The educational process involves the development of applied knowledge and skills necessary for professional growth in STEM areas. The most common qualifications are: MEng, MSci throughout Britain and MA in Scotland. The advantages of the degree include an almost imperceptible transition from a bachelor's degree to a master's degree and a practical orientation of training. At the same time, it should be taken into account that an Undergraduate Master's is not always sufficient for admission to a PhD program. Therefore, it is better for the applicant to determine in advance where he plans to work.
  • Foundation degree. A degree that combines academic and professional education. In terms of content, it is equivalent to two years of undergraduate studies and is implemented in colleges and universities in collaboration with employers. Popular areas include pedagogy, medicine, social work, nursing, sports, tourism, transport, business, management, agriculture, theater arts, and design. Full-time programs take 2 years, while part-time programs take about 4 years. Each college or university independently approves the list of requirements for admission, with work experience in the specialty playing a big role in the process. The holder of a Foundation degree can go in search of employment, or continue their studies at the bachelor's level. Despite the fact that bachelors have higher chances of employment, many areas of the UK are experiencing a shortage of personnel due to the country's exit from the EU, and therefore willingly accept workers with a Foundation degree. Statistics show that within six months after the completion of the program, 61.5% of graduates are employed, 55.9% continue to study, and only 1.8% remain unemployed[6].
  • Higher National Certificate (HNC) and Higher National Diploma (HND). The half-baccalaureate equivalents are one year and two years, respectively. This is how long it takes to master these programs on a full-time schedule. HNC and HND give students the skills to work in engineering, agriculture, health care, and social welfare. 1-2 A-level exams are usually required for admission. A classroom setting predominates, but instead of the usual exams, knowledge control is carried out with the help of projects, presentations, and practical tasks. Having received an HNC or HND, students can already work in their profession, but, as in the case of a Foundation degree, they often choose an annual top-up course leading to a bachelor's degree.
  • Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE) and Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE). These are the academic equivalents of the HNC and HND with the same standards as a bachelor's degree. On the one hand, these are independent qualifications intended for students who are not ready for a three-year bachelor’s program. On the other hand, these are a form of intermediate qualifications that are awarded to students who, for whatever reason, are forced to stop their studies after the first or second year. However, CertHE and DipHE are only available for some subject areas. Among them: animal sciences, textile design, counseling and psychotherapy, health care, nursing, and other sciences related to medicine. The tuition fee is usually the same as for a bachelor’s degree.
Programs and degrees at the University of Essex
Programs and degrees at the University of Essex
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Master’s programs in the UK — Postgraduate

Master's degrees at UK universities represent academic programs and practice-oriented postgraduate courses. Most of them will require 1 year of study (90 ECTS).

Types of master's qualifications:

  • Academic master's degrees. In these programs, students study in depth the subject area that they studied at the bachelor's level. Such a program is suitable for building both academic and professional careers.
  • Professional master's degrees. These differ in narrow specialization. Students acquire the professional skills necessary for a future career, often with subsequent employment. This also includes postgraduate retraining courses (conversion courses), allowing you to change your field of study.

There are also two varieties of the Academic master's:

  • Taught degrees. These are aimed at training according to a clearly structured plan: lectures, seminars, practical exercises, independent work, and writing a dissertation. The implementation of the plan is controlled by the teaching staff.
  • Research degrees. These do not imply a set schedule of classes. The student is engaged only in research with the support of a supervisor. An ideal option for those who plan to enroll in future PhD programs.
Master's studies, University of Sussex, Brighton
Master's studies, University of Sussex, Brighton

Documents for admission

Many universities accept applications all year round, but some have deadlines in June and January. The list of documents for admission includes:

Additionally, the university can conduct an entrance test or an interview with the candidate (in person or via Skype). If he does not speak English at the proper level, private educational institutions, as a rule, offer a Pre-Master's preparatory program to the student.

Qualifications of the postgraduate category
DegreeFull titleTypeLength of studySubject area
MAMaster of ArtsTaught1-2 yearsArts, Humanities, and Social Sciences
MScMaster of ScienceTaught1-2 yearsScience, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and some Social Sciences
MResMaster of ResearchTaught /Research1-2 yearsAll subjects
MPhilMaster of PhilosophyResearch2 yearsAll subjects
MFAMaster of Fine ArtsPractical/Professional1-2 yearsArts
MLittMaster of LettersTaught/Research1-2 yearsArts and Humanities
LLMMaster of LawsTaught / Research1-2 yearsLaw
LPCLegal Practice CourseProfessional1-2 yearsLaw
GDLGraduate Diploma in LawProfessional1 yearLaw
MBAMaster of Business AdministrationProfessional1-2 yearsBusiness and Management
MIMMaster in ManagementProfessional1 yearBusiness and Management
MEngMaster of EngineeringTaught/Professional4 yearsEngineering and Technology
MSWMaster of Social WorkTaught/Professional2 yearsSocial Work
PGCertPostgraduate CertificateTaught / Professional1 semesterAll subjects
PGDipPostgraduate DiplomaTaught / Professional2 termsAll subjects
PGCEPostgraduate Certificate in EducationProfessional1-2 yearsEducation
PGDEProfessional Diploma in EducationProfessional1-2 yearsEducation
Features of master's programs in the UK
In the UK, there are a large number of specific programs that can be difficult to distinguish from each other:
  • PhD 1+3 program. Another version of the Integrated master's degree, which merges master's (1 year) and doctoral studies (3 years) into one program. As opposed to an undergraduate master's degree, the graduate is awarded both degrees in turn. During the first year of study, students focus on studying subjects and gaining the skills necessary for further studies in the doctoral program.
  • MPhil. An advanced research program, it is highly regarded by employers as a stand-alone degree (2 years). A student can progress to a PhD upon completion of the first year without earning an MPhil degree. Because of this, MPhil is often misunderstood as an incomplete doctoral program (failed PhD).
  • Joint Master's degrees/double Master's. Joint educational programs of two or more universities (usually in Britain and another country) with the award of a master's degree after two years of study. Such programs are implemented by Erasmus Plus.
  • Oxbridge MA. If a graduate stays to work at Oxford or Cambridge universities after receiving a Bachelor of Arts with honours degree, after 6-7 years he is awarded the title of MA. Unlike the usual Master of Arts attained at other universities, the Oxbridge MA is an academic rank and not a postgraduate qualification.
Postgraduate conversion courses
Retraining courses are designed to introduce you to a new profession. There are 4 main types of conversion courses:
  • Graduate diploma (GDip). Retraining courses that provide a base from a bachelor's program in a chosen specialty. Intensity — 60 ECTS.
  • Postgraduate diploma (PGDip). An academic program of 60 ECTS, the content of which is close to that of a master's degree.
  • Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert). A shorter alternative to the PGDip. The number of educational credits is 30 ECTS.
  • Master’s conversion courses. Some master's programs accept students without prior training in the program profile. Volume — 90 ECTS.
At British universities, the most common courses are in the following subject areas:
  • psychology — PGDip or MSc Psychology
  • law — Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL)
  • education — PGCE
  • Information technology — MSc Computer Science
  • management — Master’s in Management (MiM)
  • accounting — Master’s-level courses in accounting
  • journalism — Journalism-related Master’s
  • marketing — Marketing Master’s
In most cases, the requirements for admission to retraining courses coincide with those for a regular master's program.

Doctorate programs in the UK — Postgraduate

Doctorate degrees (PhD, DPhil) are the third and final step in the UK higher education system, equivalent to a PhD. There are PhD programs in all subjects. The duration of most of them is 3 years, during which students do their own research, consult with a supervisor, publish articles, participate in conferences, and sometimes teach bachelor’s students. At the final stage, they write a dissertation followed by an oral defense. In some cases (New Route PhD scheme, Wellcome Trust Four year PhD scheme) doctorate programs are supplemented by training courses, increasing the duration of study to up to 4 years.

Documents for admission

Most often, a master's degree is required for admission to a PhD program, however, some universities offer programs that are available to students immediately after their bachelor's studies. This mainly applies to graduates of STEM areas.

Doctorate programs usually begin in September-October, and applications are accepted all year round. However, early submission of documents can increase the candidate's chances for acceptance. The list of requirements for admission to doctorate studies includes:

  • Merit/distinction master's degree (GPA >60%) or equivalent
  • or a bachelor's degree with honors in a related specialty
  • Level of English proficiency no lower than IELTS 7.0
  • Research proposal
  • Motivation letter
  • Recommendations from professors or employers
  • Successful completion of an interview

The competition for doctorate programs is quite high in the UK — the success or failure of a candidate largely depends on his research experience, academic achievements, number of publications, and extracurricular activities.

An academic career in the UK
Compared to other countries, academic careers in the UK are quite open to foreigners: 31% of the teaching staff comes from abroad[7]. This figure grows with every year, largely due to the prevalence of the English language. A PhD is required to start an academic career. In some cases, an MPhil can open doors to various academic positions, such as a research assistant, lab technician, project manager, or teaching fellow. One of the shortcomings of the British system is the widespread use of temporary fixed-term contracts. They make it difficult to find stable employment in the academic field. The chances of obtaining a permanent position depend on the requirements of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which emphasizes the need for research and publications. The main academic positions at British universities are:
  • Postdoctoral Research Assistant/Fellow. The Postdoc is a temporary position of a research assistant (2-3 years), which allows a PhD graduate to continue research activities. Sometimes the position is related to the implementation of a particular project at the university. The Research Fellow generally has more freedom in conducting research than the Research Assistant.
  • Assistant/Associate Lecturer. A teaching position that doesn’t require a fixed contract.
  • Lecturer (A/B). An entry-level, full-time position analogous to an Assistant Professor in the US. Such a position becomes available after several years of work under fixed-term contracts. It combines teaching and research activities. Appointment becomes permanent after a 3-4 year probationary period. The difference between Lecturer A and Lecturer B lies in their salary, which depends on the candidate's qualifications.
  • Senior Lecturer/Reader. The next stage of an academic career after Lecturer. At some universities, the two positions are equal. The only difference is that a Senior Lecturer focuses on teaching, while a Reader focuses on research. At other institutions, a Senior Lecturer may be promoted to a Reader.
  • Associate Professor. The international equivalent of Senior Lecturer or Reader, which has become more common in the UK in the last decade. Associate Professors are appointed for 5 years, after which the results of their work are evaluated. According to the results, they can secure this position indefinitely.
  • Professor. The highest academic position. Unlike the US, where almost all Associate Professors are eventually promoted to Full Professor, сandidates in the UK are required to publish at least two books. Often the position of Professor assumes the leadership of the faculty.

Admission to a British university

Admission to a British university is multi-stage, and because of this is fairly difficult. First, you need to enter a preparatory program (A-levels, IB, Foundation, or International Year One), undergo training, pass the final exams, and only then apply to a university.

During a free consultation, UniPage experts will explain in detail the requirements that apply to an applicant. We fully supervise the admission process — selecting a university and program, collecting a package of documents, and submitting applications. All so that you have free time for the most important thing — studying and preparing for exams.

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Opportunities to work while studying

For foreign students studying full-time, a student visa allows them to work according to the following rules: up to 20 hours per week during the semester and up to 40 hours per week during the holidays. The exception is persons 16-17 years old, who can work up to 10 hours a week throughout the year.

Full employment is only possible if the internship or practice is part of an educational program and is assessed by credits. At the same time, the work time should not exceed 50% (sometimes 30%) of the total duration of training.

Restrictions also apply to several areas of employment: students are prohibited from engaging in entrepreneurial ventures, having their own business, and being a professional athlete, coach, doctor, or artist[8].

After receiving a job offer, the student must obtain a National Insurance number.

An exception is Apprenticeship programs that offer formal employment with periodic attendance at classroom classes. This opportunity is available to foreign students, but in order to use it, the candidate must apply for a work visa. Check with the college, university, or employer for details.

The UK has a minimum wage that applies to foreign students. The National Minimum Wage rises every year and is based on age.

AgeMinimum wage per hour
23+11 USD
21-2210 USD
Apprentice <19USD

Staying in and immigrating to the UK

Britain is one of the most complex countries for immigration. From the summer of 2021, a graduate with a student visa has 2 years to switch to a Skilled Worker visa, intended for skilled workers. To obtain such a visa, you need to get a job in a company with a sponsorship license. However, the student does not have to wait until the end of his studies, given that most of the available vacancies may already be filled by this time. To increase your chances of finding a job, start looking for employment about a year before graduation.

Criteria for obtaining a Skilled Worker visa:

  • Bachelor's, Master's, PGCE, PGDip, or PhD qualification
  • Guarantee from the future place of employment — certificate of sponsorship
  • Estimated salary of at least 25,242 USD/year when switching from a student visa. In other cases — 36,406 USD
  • At least 1,147 USD in your bank account or a sponsorship letter

Additionally, you may need a five-year travel history, a certificate of the absence of tuberculosis, and a certificate of no criminal record. The cost of a visa depends on the validity period[9]. A Skilled Worker visa allows you to work in the country for up to five years. It can be extended, but the total stay should not exceed six years. The visa also allows you to find a second part-time job (up to 20 hours per week)[10].

Another option to stay in the UK is to get a Start-up visa. To do this, the candidate must have an innovative business idea approved by an educational institution or a company from the list of authorized organizations, known as endorsing bodies. The visa is issued for only two years and is not renewable, but gives access to the Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) visa and Innovator visa.

After 10 years of legal residence in the country on any visa (including student), an immigrant is granted the right to permanent residence, and after another year — to citizenship. This method is called long residence and is one of the few options for immigration to the country for foreign students.

Prospects and opportunities for work

  • In the UK. The unemployment rate among foreigners in the country is only 4.3%. This is lower than the European Union average of 14.9%[11]. However, graduates will still find it difficult to find a job. Various sources mention that 5000 to 7000 students made the transition to a work visa — just over 1% of all foreign students[12]. This is largely due to the fact that when applying for a job, British citizens are prioritized. An exception may be scarce professions from the Shortage Occupation List and several other positions[13].
    Unemployment rate among migrants in OECD countries
    Unemployment rate among migrants in OECD countries
  • In other countries. Diplomas from British universities are highly valued all over the world. Fourteen universities in the UK are among the top 100 educational institutions in the world in terms of demand among employers[14]. The assessment criteria include the number of employed graduates and the results of their work, the reputation of universities among employers, and their partnership agreements.
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