United Kingdom: quality and opportunities for students

Leonardo Tissot
Leonardo Tissot
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Despite all of the concerns Brexit has raised for UK’s universities, such as funding issues, the land of hope and glory remains a great choice for students who want to attend some of its most renowned and best-ranked higher education institutions.

UK’s Demographics

Illustration United Kingdom flag and map

Illustration London location in the United Kingdom map


LANGUAGE English, Welsh POPULATION 65.64 million BIGGEST INDUSTRIES Accounting, architecture, construction, engineering, allied health, live-in care, nursing, teaching

CURRENCY British Pound, Euro GENDER 50.7% female, 49.3% male

Top 5 Education Indicators

With excellent teacher pay, a fair number of universities in the World Top 100 rankings and more investment in education than the average of other countries, the United Kingdom is one of the best places to get a higher education degree.

Higher Education Professors wages/salaries Foreign students (US$ /year) 76,750 281,391 0 50,000 100,000 0 200,000 400,000 UK 1 France 2 Germany 3 Spain 4 Average * 100,000 94,000 63,000 50,000 438,010 310,000 301,350 76,333 Average * UK 5 France 6 Germany 7 Spain 8 UK France Germany Spain Average * Number of universities in Top 100 ranking 9,10 4 4.75 2 13
Government expenditure in research and education Tertiary completion rate 11 40.7 / 110.85 US$ billion 31.2 / 80.5 US$ billion 99.3 / 225.9 US$ billion 914.4 US$ million / 56 US$ billion 43 / 118.3 US$ billion 0 100 % UK France Germany Spain Average* UK 12,13 France 14 Germany 15,16 Spain 17,18 Average* Research Education Male Female Average* 41% 52% 46% 40% 50% 45% 30% 32% 31% 37% 45% 41% 40.75% * Average of the four European countries researched: France, Germany, Spain and United Kingdom

How Education Starts in UK

As early as the age of 5, the British start their journey in school. That’s when Primary Education begins for children in England, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Wales19 and they take it very seriously since that early age. In 2016, no less than 66% of pupils met or exceeded the expected standard in reading, 70% did so in mathematics and 74% achieved their goals in writing.20

This was just the first year of the new national curriculum enforced in British primary schools. According to the UK’s Department of Education, the new assessments raised the bar on what students aged 5 to 11 must be taught, consequently preparing them for secondary school and beyond.

Then, from ages 11 to 16, comes the time for secondary education. Of course, not all students can go to Hogwarts, but all of them have a chance to get a great deal of learning. Over the past two years, the main goal is to prepare students for the General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs), academic qualifications given for specific subjects. The GCSEs are highly valued by colleges and employers, so they are quite popular among young British students.

Out of all 50 available subjects, four of them are mandatory: English Language, English Literature, Sciences and Mathematics. Welsh and Irish Languages are also required in Wales and Northern Ireland, respectively. However, students are free to choose the other subjects they are going to specialize in — actually, they are encouraged to take a wide range of subjects so they can keep their options open for the future.

After school, British students can continue studying or apply for jobs.21 Nevertheless, before going to a higher education institution, if they choose to, students are required to attend further education. Similar to the GCSEs, the A-level is a two-year program that develops their academic abilities before attending college.22

The UK has a 46% completion rate in tertiary education, which is a good rate when compared to other countries researched for this piece – although Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore have superior numbers. The United Kingdom is ranked 18th in the System Education World Economic Forum ranking. 23

What is a matter of concern for British educators is the rise in the student dropout rate during the first year of college. In 2014-2015, 6.2% of students quit higher education even before getting to the second year.24

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The UK Has Some of the Most Renowned Universities in the World

With over 100 universities – and 13 of them being listed in the World’s Top 100 rankings – the United Kingdom is one of the best places in the world to get a university degree. However, it’s one of the priciest too: local students spend an average of US$ 5,90025 per semester to study in their best campuses and international students pay more than twice that amount as the average cost is US$ 12,900 per semester if you come from another country.26

Business and administrative studies, biological sciences, subjects concerned with medicine, social studies and creative arts & design are considered the top five majors in the UK.27

The Top-Ranked Universities in the UK, by Country28,29 

Position in QS World Ranking #1 #425 #98 #176 #249 National University of Ireland, Galway University College Dublin Trinity College Dublin Ireland #63 #77 #244 Dundee St. Andrews Glasgow Scotland #140 #390 #411 Bangor Swansea Cardiff Wales #4 #6 #7 DUCL – University College London Oxford Cambridge England Not listed Not listed Ulster Queen’s, Belfast Northern Ireland

All universities in the UK demand a tuition fee – none of them is public or government-owned, like in most countries. They are independent organizations and the majority of them have some kind of government funding – still, students that want to get a degree have to contribute financially, unless they have scholarships.30


Recently, the financing of universities has become a sensitive issue in the UK. With the country’s decision to leave the European Union (EU), and the subsequent inability to access EU funds for higher education, institutions are becoming increasingly more concerned that international students might not be able to go to the United Kingdom to get a degree anymore. The number of 438,000 international students is expected to drop in the near future, considering 127,000 come from other EU countries. As if this wasn’t enough trouble, Brexit could also have a bear on research funding, which is also seen as a major concern.31

Improving the quality

Although universities are capable of collecting a huge amount of data, they do not always put it to good use. That’s why they are being encouraged to impact students’ lives with information and data to support their studies, while helping them be more efficient.

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is a new way to improve the quality of British universities. It’s a government-based assessment of undergraduate teaching that includes all higher education institutions in England and also some in Scotland and Wales. They can be awarded with Gold, Silver and Bronze distinctions. In 2017, 42 institutions (out of a total of 134) were considered Gold in the TEF.32

As a way to improve students’ experiences at universities, schools like the University of Nottingham, for example, are also monitoring student attendance – which includes being present at all teaching activities, undertaking all assessments and informing universities when they’re not able to do so. The universities report non-attendance to British education authorities such as the Home Office and Student Loans Company when required.33

5 UK Highlights in Education

1. The United Kingdom is the second country with more universities in the World 100 Top Rankings (13 institutions), just below the United States.

2. Proportionally, the UK is also #2 in number of universities on the Top 100, with Singapore taking the lead. It is worth noting that Singapore has only eight universities and two of them are on the list (25%).

3. The UK is also #2 on e-learning usage (210,000 online students), just below the United States.34

4. The United States is the only country where a professor can make more money than in the United Kingdom.

5. The UK is considered the most scholarship friendly country in the world. Top-ranked institutions, such as Cambridge and Oxford, offer scholarships that cover full tuition costs.35

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1Education at a Glance 2016 | OECD READ edition. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/education/education-at-a-glance-2016_eag-2016-en#page411

2Education at a Glance 2016 | OECD READ edition. (n.d.). Retrieved October 05, 2017, from http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/education/education-at-a-glance-2016_eag-2016-en#page411

3Glassdoor Job Search | Find the job that fits your life. (n.d.). Retrieved October 05, 2017, from https://www.glassdoor.com/index.htm

4Web institucional de la Universidad de Murcia. (n.d.). Retrieved October 05, 2017, from http://www.um.es/web/transparencia/contenido/estructura-recursos-humanos/retribuciones-bandas-salariales

5International study. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/international-study

6France: Monthly Minimum Wage for Student Interns to Increase to 554€. (2017, July 24). Retrieved October 05, 2017, from http://www.qs.com/france-monthly-minimum-wage-for-student-interns-to-increase-to-554e/

7Number of the Month: 301,350 international students. (n.d.). Retrieved October 05, 2017, from https://www.research-in-germany.org/en/infoservice/newsletter/newsletter-2016/june-2016/301-350-international-students.html

8Facts and Figures of the Spanish University System [PDF]. (2011, April 20). Tecnical office Sub-Directorate General of Documentation and Publications

9(n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from http://www.webometrics.info/en

10QS World University Rankings 2016. (2017, May 23). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2016

11World Inequality Database on Education. (n.d.). Retrieved October 05, 2017, from http://www.education-inequalities.org/

12Statistical bulletin:UK gross domestic expenditure on research and development: 2015. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/governmentpublicsectorandtaxes/researchanddevelopmentexpenditure/bulletins/ukgrossdomesticexpenditureonresearchanddevelopment/2015

13What is the Total UK Public Spending? (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/government_expenditure.html

14Public budget breakdown France 2016 | Statistic. Retrieved October 05, 2017, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/467398/public-budget-breakdown-france/

15Facts & Figures. (n.d.). Retrieved October 05, 2017, from https://www.research-in-germany.org/en/research-landscape/facts-and-figures.html

16Team, B. D. (2016, April 10). Education and Research in Figures 2017 – 2 Education – BMBF’s Data Portal. Retrieved October 05, 2017, from http://www.datenportal.bmbf.de/portal/en/B2.html

17DATOS 2015 CSIC Institutos Y Centros [PDF]. (2016, October). Agencia Estatal Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas

18Nota: Estadística del Gasto público en educación [PDF]. (2017, April 11). Madrid: Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte.    

19UK Education System | Study in the UK. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.internationalstudent.com/study_uk/education_system/

20Primary education. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/primary-education

21GCSEs The official student guide to the system. (n.d.). Coventry: Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator.

22Further Education System | Study in the UK. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.internationalstudent.com/study_uk/education_system/further_education/

23Competitiveness Rankings. (n.d.). Retrieved September 27, 2017, from http://reports.weforum.org/global-competitiveness-report-2015-2016/competitiveness-rankings/#indicatorId=GCI.B.05

24Dropout rate for young UK students rises again. (2017, March 14). Retrieved September 27, 2017, from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/dropout-rate-young-uk-students-rises-again

25If you come from England. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/university-tuition-fees/university-tuition-fees-and-financial-support/if-you-come-from-england/

26Tuition Fees. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/international/studying-in-the-uk/tuition-fees/

27Introduction – Higher Education Statistics for the UK 2015/16. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/publications/higher-education-2015-16/introduction

28University league tables 2018. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/education/ng-interactive/2017/may/16/university-league-tables-2018

29Times Higher Education World University Rankings. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/

30University spending explained. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/facts-and-stats/Pages/university-spending-explained.aspx

31Elgot, J. (2016, September 19). Universities fear UK’s global reputation in jeopardy due to Brexit. Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/sep/19/universities-fear-uk-global-reputation-in-jeopardy-brexit

32Teaching excellence framework (TEF) results 2017. (2017, August 15). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/teaching-excellence-framework-tef-results-2017#survey-answer

33Attendance Monitoring. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/academicservices/staffinformation/attendancemonitoring.aspx

34Jolin, L. (2015, February 19). Distance learning taps in to virtual reality technology. Retrieved September 24, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/feb/19/distance-learning-taps-in-to-virtual-reality-technology

3510 Best Scholarship Most Friendly Countries In The World. (2015, November 13). Retrieved September 24, 2017, from http://scholarshipstudyadvisor.com/10-best-scholarship-most-friendly-countries-in-the-world

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