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The UK Higher Education System

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Universities in the UK

The higher education sector in the UK is dominated by public universities which are characterised by their institutional autonomy. This means they are free to invest and generate income as best suited for them whilst having to demonstrate excellence of research and teaching to receive public funds which can range from 30-90% of their overall balance sheet. Some of the largest and most research intensive institutions will fund their operations through a range of funding and income generation, for example through partnerships with private businesses.

Even amongst public universities, there is great variation. Not necessarily in quality but in the range of programmes offered, expertise available and student experience, so it is worth getting to know potential universities a bit better before you make up your mind. Universities can differ on the basis of a number of criteria, to name a few:

  • Their size (from over 30,000 students to just a few hundred).
  • Postgraduate provision (broad spectrum of subjects or specialist focus).
  • Research-intensive activity.
  • Relationship with private sector and employers.
  • Community engagement.
  • Campus-based or in the city.

Private institutions awarding postgraduate degrees also exist in the UK. They tend to focus on areas such as the arts, business & management and theology.

It is not just in the UK that you can study at a UK institution. A growing number of UK universities are setting up campuses abroad.

Accreditation of UK universities

In the UK, a degree-level qualification can only be awarded by permission from the Secretary of State, a Royal Charter or an Act of Parliament. This helps you to identify the list of recognised institutions. Universities and some colleges can award degree-level qualifications but if you are looking to pursue a Masters or a PhD, you are more likely to study at a university. There are exceptions such as arts colleges and business schools, some being autonomous, whilst others are constituents of universities.

There are two types of 'accreditations', institution-level and qualification-level, often dealt with by completely different organisations. For example, for a recognised university to be able to award a medical degree or a teacher’s qualification, it will need the appropriate professional body accreditation. In any case, all bodies that award UK degrees are subject to a regular external quality assurance reviews by the Quality Assurance Agency UK (QAA).

Types of Masters qualification awarded by UK universities

There are four main types of postgraduate degree in the UK: taught masters (called Masters by Coursework by our North American friends), Masters by Research, Masters of Philosophy (MPhil) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). The most common varieties of taught Masters degree in the UK are the MA (Master of Arts) and the MSc (Master of Science). A few subjects have their own specific degree titles. Often these are equivalent to the MA and the MSc, but in some cases a subject-specific qualification may also carry professional accreditation: an LLM, for example, is a professional Law degree usually required for admission into formal legal practice. The MBA, on the other hand, is a high-profile business degree, usually studied by graduates with professional experience.

Most taught Masters courses in the UK are designed to be studied following an appropriate undergraduate Bachelor's degree or its equivelent (this is why they are referred to as 'postgraduate degrees'). In some cases, however, Masters degrees may be awarded at the end of a period of undergraduate study. This is common in Scotland, where students often enrol on four year degree programmes that effectively combine a Bachelors degree with a Masters degree. Some universities in England (particularly Oxford and Cambridge) also award a Masters degree to their graduates after a certain period of time has elapsed following their graduation. This is known as the 'Oxbridge MA' and will not usually be regarded as equivalent to a Masters gained through a formal programme of postgraduate study.

Implementation of the Bologna Process

UK Masters and PhD degrees are compatible with the Bologna Process. which means that there is recognition and equivalence between UK degrees and those of other countries within the European Higher Education Area, all of whom have signed up to a common framework for university qualifications.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, qualifications follow a '3+1+3' format (three years of undergraduate study, followed by one year of taught Masters study, followed by three years of PhD study). In Scotland, this may be '4+3' if a Masters is awarded at the end of an undergraduate degree. It is possible to undertake a PhD straight after an undergraduate degree, although this tends to occur in the sciences rather than in the arts, social sciences and humanities.

Most Masters programmes involve 12 months of full time study (90 ECTS). Some programmes take 24 months (180ECTS); these are often offered in collaboration with EU universities. Both 12-month and 24-month programmes are fully Bologna compatible.

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