Over the past year, I have been asked this question increasingly frequently – “How do I go about applying to a UK university?” Many students who think of studying abroad often apply to American universities (I did too), and most of them have the procedure down pat – you give the SAT Reasoning Test and, in most cases, SAT Subject Tests in your particular area of study. You let College Board rob the living daylights out of you for this, and then again if you want resits, and then again when you give TOEFL, and then again when you apply to each university (individually or via Common Application).
The UK education system is significantly different. I will try to give a brief overview of how the higher education sector is structured in the UK, the procedures involved in applying to universities, how to choose the university and type of degree best suited for you, things to watch out for, et al. There is a lot of material and guidance available for UK and EU students already, so this article’s focus will be on providing guidance to international, non-EU students considering to join UK universities. Caveat emptor, as with anything – this is not ‘official’ advice, merely my notes on this topic.
Why USA is a more popular education destination than the UK?
If there’s one thing American universities are good at, that thing would be marketing themselves aggressively to overseas students. It’s not that you don’t have good UK universities – you’ll find numerous UK universities among world ranking lists.
Speaking from my experience in India, it is common – at least in major cities – for US universities to go touring school campuses themselves or as a part of a consortium to attract more students. Consequently, a lot more students are ‘aware’ of the procedure involved. UK universities on the other hand often limit their outreach to British Council events and events held via ‘education consultants’. This results in only people who are actively seeking information about UK universities to be the ones who bother to think about applying.
Once misconception regarding studying in the UK is that it’s costlier than studying in the US, primarily because the pound sterling is a costlier currency to convert foreign currency into than the US dollar. While this is true, the costs of a UK degree are a few orders of magnitude less than that of US degrees. Read on to find out why.
The thing that I’m trying to say is that if you’ve taken the decision to study overseas, then you should explore your options beyond ‘just USA’. I can provide some guidance (hopefully!) about UK, but do your own research into other destinations such as Europe, Australia, Singapore, et al. You might find something that interests you.
How are degrees structured in UK universities?
If you weren’t aware already, the United Kingdom is split into four separate countries – England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Most overseas students – and thus in this article, I – stick to universities based in England (sometimes, Wales) so I’ll primarily discuss those. (Yes, the structure of courses is different.)
- Bachelors degrees, regardless of discipline, are usually three years in duration rather than four years as is the norm in many other countries. The exception is Scotland, where degrees are four years in duration – but ‘high school’ education in Scotland ends a year early, so most university undergrads in Scotland are 17 rather than 18 years of age.
- Direct Masters degrees are integrated courses of four-year duration where you join as undergraduate and get your Masters degree after four years. You have the option to switch to the Bachelors degree pathway or switch from a Bachelors degree pathway to direct Masters, usually till year 2 of your degree. As with Bachelors, Scottish direct Masters degrees are a year longer, i.e., five years in duration than the norm elsewhere in UK.
- Masters degrees (for those who already hold a Bachelors degree) are of one or two-year length, depending on whether you’re joining the ‘research’ or ‘taught’ pathway. I won’t discuss this option because my experience is limited to the undergraduate admission process.
The reason that Scottish students start university a year early – and thus often covering topics most overseas students would have already studied in (high) school / ‘sixth form‘ is, I think, a reason overseas students stick to English universities. That, and the misconception that ‘United Kingdom / Britain’ is the same as ‘England’ (It’s not.).
(‘Pathway’ is a term you’ll often hear me mention often. Basically, this term is used to denote the various permutations that combine to make up the final degree structure that you’ll take up at a university here.)
Hold on! There’s another interesting option to discuss – and that’s the ‘sandwich course‘ option that many universities in the UK offer as a course pathway. The sandwich course pathway is called so because between your second year and your final year, you spend a year in placement in industry. You start off with your first two years the same as those on the normal three-year Bachelors degree, then spend your third (chronological) year working for a company related to the course you’re studying. Your university will assist you in looking for these placements, and often have partnership agreements with companies on regular student intake for placement year.
This is an assessed part of your degree, with credits being allotted depending upon your performance on the job. You also get paid for this placement year – anywhere up to 2/3rds to 3/4ths of salary given to graduate employees. So you get to build up your savings and get valuable experience in the industry that adds to your CV when you’re looking for jobs after graduation. This placement year option is different from summer placements; due to the longer period of work, you get to work on multiple stages of projects, get assigned more responsibilities, and in general have more chances to learn. No, I’m not reading this out from university brochures but from the experience of final year students who’ve done placement.
I understand that many of you will be apprehensive of taking up a ‘new’ degree option such as this. That’s perfectly fine – because the pathway is flexible. You have time till starting of your second year to figure out whether you want to opt in for the placement year option or not – and if you’ve already taken sandwich course option when joining university, you can opt out right till the end of second year. Note that exact rules and procedures regarding pathway shift will differ from university-to-university, but what I mentioned is the norm.
How is the higher education sector structured in the UK and how it affects you…
All (legitimate) UK universities are publicly funded (except for the University of Buckingham, but it’s such a minor aberration that we’ll leave that for the while). Universities have complete operational autonomy though and aren’t controlled as such by the government,
Tuition costs for UK students (and to some extent, EU students) is heavily subsidised by the government to a fraction of the ‘real cost’ of the degree. On top of that, most UK/EU students also get need-assessed student loans to cover their tuition and living costs. Effectively, ‘home’ students get an education for practically no immediate expenditure out of their own pocket, but they pay it back to future generations through a ‘graduate tax’ over their working lifetime.
To stray from the topic a bit, the funding model for higher education in the UK is currently undergoing some heated debate especially after the recent general elections here. So far, the funding model has been able to cope up with demand and provided ‘social mobility’ – which means that nobody is disadvantaged by their financial situation to be unable to pursue the degree they want because of the excellent financial support system here. Funding an ever-expanding higher education sector and enabling it to compete with the best in the world is gnawing away at the current model though. There is no doubt that greater funding is needed, but the government cannot afford to pump in more money as it’s facing budget deficits, and the public / student sentiment is strongly against raising fees at all since everyone is so used to the current ‘free lunch’ system. Meanwhile, universities are facing immediate and legitimate financial strain because of funding drying up, and have had to make cutbacks. (You can follow this debate up by searching online.)
…by making financial support hard-to-get for international students
The fact that UK universities are publicly funded has a significant impact on overseas students. Since universities are already stretched out providing financial support to UK/EU students, you won’t full scholarships for undergraduate studies – period. Also, you will be paying the full, unsubsidized cost of the degree.
Here’s where the US seemingly has an advantage – they have state-funded universities where the US government provides financial support; these are often mid-to-low rung but can sometimes be world-class, as the University of California group of universities is. In most state-funded US universities, overseas students will be hard-pressed to get financial support – just like it is here in the UK.
Most top-rung US universities are privately funded institutes which primarily get their funding through endowments from corporations, organizations, alumni et al. Sure, they have fee-paying students, revenue from commercial exploitation of research done – but what allows private US universities the ability to offer significant amount of financial aid (both to home and international students) is this significant corpus that they get from benefactors. Endowments from external sources are practically non-existent in the UK higher education sector.
I’m not saying that you’ll find no scholarship if you apply to UK universities – what I’m saying is that each university has its own fixed amount of scholarship that pays part of your tuition fees and the criteria for getting these scholarships is almost always merit-based. Contrast this with the US, where financial aid is often variable and calculated on a need-based criteria.
The maths involved – working out what finances you need for studying in UK
The previous section might have sounded gloomy, so let’s stop talking in vague terms and put some figures out to compare. Finances are often one of the major deciding factors when overseas students choose to study abroad so it’s useful to discuss this. Tuition fees in UK universities ranges from £8,000-13,000 per year with £4,000-6,000 per year as living costs / expenses (all-inclusive). Living costs / expenses will depend a lot on your personal spending patterns, and how affluent the place where your university is located is. (Living in London is more expensive than other parts of England, for instance.) Universities offer anywhere between £1,000-5,000 as scholarship on a merit-based criteria. (Whether you get this as an ‘entry’ scholarship – right when you join university – or an ‘evaluated’ scholarship – where you’re award this on the basis of your performance in exams, varies.) This scholarship range isn’t necessarily tied to how costly it is to attend a university, i.e., even a ‘cheaper’ university might offer a greater amount in scholarship than a ‘costlier’ university.
Compare this with the costs involved in studying at a US university, which is around $35,000-50,000 per year (tuition and living expenses combined). Every applicant’s case is unique and the scholarship amount that you get will vary – but it’s rare in the current financial climate to get full scholarship. Even universities have acknowledged saying that their endowment funds have been affected by the recession. (Stanford is just one example, you can search up more.)
What is usually the case when you apply to a US university though is they offer you a need-assessed scholarship to pay part of the expenses, with the applicant paying the rest. You can look up the average amount awarded in financial aid by each university on collegeboard.com (if the data has been released), but this is usually $10,000-20,000, per year.
When you consider that a UK degree is of a three-year duration compared to four-years in the US, you might find that the overall financial cost of studying in the UK (over the duration of study) less than that of studying the US even after scholarships (in US) have been factored in. Moreover, if you’re on the ‘placement year’ course pathway (in UK), you get to build up savings too in that particular year.
A word of caution: do not make finances the sole criteria when deciding which university or even which country to choose to go study. This is the question of your education – this is something that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. So don’t hunt for the cheapest bargain and jump on to that university’s ship. The point that I’m trying to make is when you are investing a significant amount of money into your education abroad, it might make more sense to study at a top-rung UK institute in your discipline rather than a mid-rung/low-rung US institute. Most people don’t even come to this ‘evaluation’ stage.
Applying to a UK university
So, you’ve decided to apply to a UK university. The process of going about this is quite streamlined. Every university in the UK handles applications through a centralized system called UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service). You do not need to pay each university individually for applying to them. You pay a one-time fee to UCAS (£15 or thereabouts) and with that apply to up to five universities. In a way, it’s like the Common Application except that the application is strictly generic with no ‘supplements’ asked for by individual universities. The UCAS website has all relevant information, but here’s a gist anyway.
- Application deadline is around 30th June on the year you want to join (intake is only done in autumn) but do check this up and see what the exact date is.
- You will need to supply details of any national academic exams you’ve taken in your country. Compulsory. If you are still awaiting any such academic results, submit your application anyway and then fax your results over as soon as they’re announced.
- You will need to supply either TOEFL or IELTS score. Compulsory. Contrary to popular belief, TOEFL is almost universally accepted by all UK universities. There are no ‘penalties’ for supplying TOEFL scores instead of IELTS.
- Statement of purpose, which is an essay explaining why you chose to apply for that particular degree and your motivation in seeking to study abroad. Compulsory. This has to be a generic essay applicable to all universities that you’re applying to, not tailored individually to each university. Don’t mention the universities that you’re applying to.
- Other academic results. SATs, SAT Subject Tests, other standardised exams that you’ve taken.
- Recommendations from school teachers, mentors, employers etc, depending upon your circumstances.
You will need to send authorized copies of academic transcripts by post once you’ve submitted your application online. Decisions are taken on a rolling basis, i.e., as and when applications come in so you don’t have to wait for a fixed date. Usually, it takes two-three weeks for decisions to start trickling in. There can be three possible outcomes:
- Unconditional offer – Accepted
- Conditional offer – Usually given to applicants who are still awaiting exam results. This means that you will get accepted if you meet certain criteria when your academic results are announced. (“At least x% in y subject”, etc.)
- Rejection (hopefully not!)
Once results are in, you need to pick the university you want to go to through the online UCAS system. Once you’ve made your firm choice, the university will initiate the process of sending visa paperwork to you.
(Note that Oxford and Cambridge have own, separate admission procedures and degree structure; I’ve skipped those two and focussed on the rest of the universities that use UCAS. Applying to Oxford and Cambridge is a lot more convoluted for overseas students anyway because of their entry criteria and degree structure.)
How to choose the right universities to apply to
You will need do your research on which universities are best suited for the course that you want to do. Here are some pointers:
- University ranking league tables: UK newspapers publish league tables for university rankings each year. The two main ones that you’d want to check are The Times Good University Guide and The Guardian University Guide. These provide overall and subject-wise league tables ranked according to various criteria. It’s important to check subject-wise rankings, because a university that is ranked highly overall might not have a good department in the particular subject you want to study. Other league tables to check are Sunday Times University Guide and the Complete University Guide. Use these as a starting point but don’t base your decision solely on league table rankings.
- Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) scores: RAE and QAA assessments are reviews carried out of universities periodically. RAE is assesses the standard of research being carried out (assessed department-wise) while QAA measures academic standards. University league tables often factor in these assessment scores, but you can have a look at the reports yourself too. These are important, officially done assessments so do give some thought to what the figures are for the department in the university you’re looking to join.
- Unistats: Run by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (which is the body that oversees allocation of funds to universities), this site gives data on, among others, student satisfaction surveys. Again, student surveys are factored into league tables but you might want to see the source reports on your own.
- British Council: You will find a British Council library / office in most major cities of Commonwealth countries. You’ll find prospectuses from all universities there that you can go through. (Many universities will post these to you for free thouugh, if you ask them for it or once you apply via UCAS.) For advice on application and visa procedures, you can also attend seminars conducted by the British Council. Check on their website to see if there’s one near you. Even if you don’t attend ‘Education UK’ seminars, once you’ve accepted a university offer do go to the British Council seminars on visa procedures – the British Council / High Commission team is really helpful in answering any doubts you have (and believe me, you’ll have many).
Once you’ve shortlisted some universities, explore their official website to see the courses, facilities, and support options they have on offer.
Avoid going to ‘education consultants’ for advice on where to apply. It might sound lucrative because education consultants don’t charge you anything at all; the reason is that if you join a university recommended by them AND whom they have a partnership with, they get paid commission by the university. (I’m not saying that all universities do this, but many do.) So if you go to an education consultant to figure out where to apply, they’ll try to egg you on to make a choice that is more financially rewarding for themselves. Make your own decision instead.
(US universities don’t pay commission, so you’ll find that the same education consultants will charge you exorbitantly to make applications on your behalf. Here’s a good article on concerns being caused by unscrupulous education agents / admission consultants.)
Getting your visa
So you’ve taken the decision to go to a UK university. You don’t have to worry much about your visa now! Unlike the US visa process, UK’s current visa system is a lot more streamlined and easier for applicants. The best place to get updated information on visa requirements is the UK Border Agency (UKBA) website so don’t go by just what I’ve written here. In a nutshell though, you need to provide your original academic transcripts that you used while applying (these will be returned to you, don’t worry), acceptance letter from your university (‘sponsor’), and financial evidence that to show that you can cover tuition fees for first year + living cost for nine months. You don’t need to provide projections of finances available for future years.
Under the new Tier 4 Point-Based Immigration System, you get assigned points for fulfilling the given criteria, and if these conditions are met you’re granted a study visa; there is no subjectivity in the visa decision process. No need to give interviews (although I think this relaxation is only for applicants from Commonwealth countries; you should check the UKBA site for more information.) You’ll get your visa within a week or two if you satisfy the point-based criteria. Really, visa is the least worrisome stage of going to study in the UK now.
A special note on computer engineering / computer science degrees
As far as I know, no UK institute offers degrees in ‘Software Engineering’ or ‘Computer Engineering’ in the exactly the same sense that US universities do. What you have instead is BSc Computing Science – which is closer in content to IT degrees in other countries. Some do offer BSc Software Engineering, which is like the BSc Computing Science degree in scope but with more theoretical focus than practical. BSc/MSc degrees from computing departments should be accredited by the British Computer Society (BCS).
The equivalent of ‘Computer Engineering’ in content in the UK would be BEng/MEng ‘Computer Systems Engineering (CSE)’ or ‘Electronics and Computer Engineering (ECE)’ (as it’s called in my university). These courses are run by the department/school of electronic engineering in universities here, but the thing is that departments in UK universities tend to be large, encompassing many different pathways each with their own research facilities and modules.
So don’t be confused by the fact that it falls under the electronic engineering department; the degree pathway ‘CSE / ECE’ has the mix of hardware and software modules that ‘computer engineering’ degrees have, and beyond year 1 you have great flexibility in choosing modules that allow you to focus mainly on software-related areas, or if you so want, microprocessors, analog electronics, telecommunications, etc. BEng/MEng degrees should be accredited by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). If you opt for the placement year pathway, then that year counts towards the work experience that you need in case you want to get Chartered Engineer (CEng) status that is overseen by the IET.
I hope this guide informs you of one other choice you have at your disposal once you’ve taken the decision to study abroad – but by all means go ahead and explore others! (Maybe some day I’ll write something on application processes for other countries too.) The intention of this article was to provide guidance, and clear some common misconceptions that potential applicants might have. Whichever university you choose (in whichever country), never base your decision on one single factor – and especially don’t get stuck up at finances and ranking tables. When you’re applying to the top universities in your field of study in any country, it matters more what you do with the opportunity that you’re given and the rich, varied experiences that you have.
Feel free to ask me questions in comments below on anything that I might have missed out or not clarified enough!