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Insight: UK University Culture

What is it really like to study at an UK university? And how different is it to college in the US, or other English-language courses throughout mainland Europe?

British universities have a very long history. Originally only attended by very few, the UK’s university culture has grown to benefit from students bringing life experience from every corner of the world, attending institutions across the UK and studying on a vast range of courses. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the two oldest universities in the UK and the 2nd and 4th oldest worldwide, were founded in the 12th and 13th centuries, before being joined by Scottish universities St Andrew’s, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, all in the 15th century. The title ‘third-oldest university in England’ is claimed by three separate institutions- Durham, the University of London, and UCL, each of whom use a different metric to claim the title.

Change was initially slow to come to these ancient universities regarding their student body and breadth of subjects available; it took until 1839 for degrees to be awarded with no religious test, which had effectively restricted the full benefit of university education to Anglican Protestants, and until 1848 for the first women’s college to open, which could not award degrees until 1878, when all London universities permitted women to receive degrees in recognition of their studies. However, as the 19th century drew to a close, the UK’s universities began to shift and change. The ‘redbricks’ were built, opening university education to ever-more students, and the boom in interest in continued education after the Second World War resulted in university students more than ever reflected the society around them, helped by the abolition of tuition fees and maintenance loans being implemented by local authorities. Since the re-introduction of tuition fees, and the increase in fees for home students from 2012, the number of UK-resident applicants has slowed or decreased, and with many more international applicants choosing to spend their university years in the UK, the UK university sector is the most diverse and international it has ever been! However, just over 4 in every 5 students at UK universities apply from the UK, and so applicants from outside the UK will still get to know many Brits during their time at university!

So what are the key differences between the UK and other university lifestyles?

In the UK, most university students live away from home, often in shared accommodation with other students, from halls of residence (often just for the first year, to get to know many more of your peers as you each work out uni life together) to privately rented flats or house-shares. While some students opt to stay at home to reduce costs, most students jump at the opportunity to make a new life somewhere new, and will move away from their family home to do so.

When applying to UK universities, you not only select your preferred institutions but must also know what you would like to study- and it is very difficult to make big changes to this once you are enrolled. Each academic department within a university will make its own admissions decisions, and so you cannot guarantee another course at the same university will have space a term into your studies. This results in you getting to know your coursemates as it is likely you will have lectures together, with seminars/lab-time in smaller groups.

Almost all undergraduate degrees last three or four years, with each year being weighted more heavily than the one preceding it. Many degrees culminate with a dissertation, or other long-form research project, although this is not always compulsory. Each year will be comprised of modules, some mandatory and some chosen from a selection by the student, and whilst some years will contribute more heavily to the final degree mark than others, each year must be passed in order to progress through the degree.

Degrees are conferred by the university, or in some specific cases, by a general awarding body to which the specific university belongs. Undergraduate degrees are almost always awarded in Classes, up from Third Class Honours (with marks generally from 40-50% across the degree), through Second Class (Lower 50-60%, Upper 60-70%), and First (70% and above), although there are key outliers to this.

Life at UK universities is very academics-focused, with your applications almost solely reflecting your academic achievements and goals, rather than your extra-curricular interests and hobbies. However, there are a wide range of sports clubs, societies, and other activities you can get involved with across UK universities, from American Football to Ultimate Frisbee via Quidditch and the Pun Appreciation Societies.