Universities in the United Kingdom have generally been instituted by Royal Charter, Papal Bull, Act of Parliament or an instrument of government under the Education Reform Act 1988; in any case, generally with the approval of the Privy Council, only such recognized bodies can award degrees of any kind. Undergraduate applications to almost all UK universities are managed by UCAS – the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
Most UK universities fall into one of six categories:
• Ancient universities – the seven universities founded before 1800;
• London, Durham and its former constituent college at Newcastle, and the colleges of the former University of Wales (at Lampeter, Aberystwyth, Bangor and Cardiff) – chartered in the 19th century;
• Red Brick universities – large civic universities chartered at the beginning of the 20th century before World War II;
• Plate Glass universities – universities chartered after 1966 (formerly described as the ‘new universities’ or the ‘Robbins expansion’ universities);
• The Open University – The UK’s ‘open to all’ distance learning university (est. 1968);
• New Universities – Post-1992 universities formed from Polytechnics or Colleges of Higher Education.
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.
Universities 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.
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