British universities

Most British universities can be classified into 5 main categories,

The University of London and the University of Wales are unusual in that their colleges/constituent institutions are treated as universities in their own right.

Undergraduate applications to UK state universities are managed by UCAS - the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.



The vast majority of British universities are state financed, with only one private university - the University of Buckingham - where students have to pay all their fees. None of the universities is actually state-owned, however.

English and Welsh undergraduate students (and students from other EU countries) have to pay a proportion of their university fees up to a maximum of £1,175 (in 2004/5); this is assessed on the basis of the income of the student and of the student's parents, a process known as means testing. Scottish and EU students studying in Scotland have their fees paid by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland. Students are partially supported by a state-provided loan, a portion of which is also means-tested. Students in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are also eligible for a means-tested grant, and many universities provide bursaries to poorer students. International students are not subsidised by the state and so have to pay much higher fees. In principle, all postgraduate students are liable for fees, though a variety of scholarship and assistantship schemes exist which may provide support.

Funding History

In the years following the end of World War II local education authorities (LEAs) paid student fees and provided non-mature students assisted with a maintenance grant. Under the Education Act 1962 a national Mandatory Award of student maintenance grant was established, payable by the LEAs to students on most full-time courses.

As the university population rose during the 1980s the sums paid to universities became linked to their performance and efficiency, and by the mid 1990s funding per student had dropped by 40% since the mid 1970s, while numbers of full-time students had reached around 200,000 (around a third of the age group), up from around 130,000.

Following an investigation into the future of universities, the July 1997 report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education [1] (, chaired by the then Sir Ronald Dearing recommended the ending of universal free higher education, and that students should pay £1,000 towards the cost of their tuition fees, which would be recovered in the form of a graduate tax.

At the time of the Dearing report, fees were still paid by the government, student grants of up to £1,755 (£2,160 in London) were linked to family income, and a subsidised student loan of 1,685 pounds (2,085 pounds in London) was available. Instead of following Dearing's suggestions, the grant was replaced by the present loan scheme, introduced for students starting in 1998. There was a transition year when about half the previous means-tested grant was available, although the new £1000 tuition fee still had to be paid. From 1999, the grant was abolished altogether.

From the academic year 2006/7, a new system of fees will be introduced. These variable tuition fees of up to £3000 per year will not have to paid up-front as at present, but will have to be repaid upon graduation, in addition to the existing loan. In fact, there is very little variation in the fees announced by universities — nearly all will charge the full £3000 on all courses. Instead, the differences will appear in the nature and value of various 'access' bursaries that will be on offer.


British universities tend to have a strong reputation internationally for two reasons: history and research output. Britain's imperial past, combined with the longevity of universities like Oxford and Cambridge, are the main reasons that these institutions are world renowned. The reputation of British institutions is maintained today by their continuous stream of world-class research output.

The perceived ranking of top British universities is also heavily influenced by the popularity in recent years of league tables which rank universities by teaching and research. In these tables, Oxford and Cambridge are occasionally matched and even beaten by other universities. Despite this, there is still a clear tier system in operation, with less well-considered universities often struggling to attract able students, staff and funding. Many of the less highly regarded universities have had to expand into new areas (such as media studies and sports science) in order to compete.

Recent academic analysis of published statistics has pointed to the existence of 4 groupings of universities in terms of academic performance: the elites, the top old universities, the other old universities, and the new universities (ex-polytechnics and others that have achieved university status since 1992). The other members of the Russell Group lie in the second tier of 22 universities, along with Bath, Durham, Leicester, Queen's University Belfast, St Andrews, and York.

However, if one thing is to be learnt from recent statistics it is that comparisons in a single subject (which is what students are generally interested in) often give quite different answers from overall comparisons. In the 2003 Times Good University Guide, 21 universities come top in at least one subject area, 41 are in the top three in at least one subject area, and 80 are in the top ten in at least one subject area. Part of this diversity stems from the fact that not all subjects are offered at all universities and they thus have no possibility of appearing anywhere near the top of the table,

The most famous example of subject-specific ranking being dramatically different from the overall ranking is probably in history, where Oxford Brookes, the former polytechnic, gained a higher research rating than the elite Oxford University, or modern languages, where Middlesex University, another former polytechnic, gained a higher rating than Oxford or Cambridge in the Guardian 2004 university league tables. An oft-quoted example is that of the various engineerings, where Cambridge, Oxford and Durham are not present in any of the top-20s, despite their high overall rankings. This is misleading however, since these universities do not offer any of the specific engineerings, instead providing a general engineering course (which allows specialisation in later years), where they were ranked 1st, 2nd and 5th respectively in 2005. Southampton has a particularly strong showing in engineering where it is the only university in the country to hold the top (5*) RAE rating in all departments within its engineering faculty.

See Also

de:Britische Universitšten


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