Five Quick Points About United Kingdom
- Second only to the U.S. as a study destination for international students
- London a major financial center for the world
- Increasingly multicultural
- Old, rich, and tumultuous history for students with this kind of interest
- Scottish system of education quite distinct from the education systems in the rest of U.K.
Location and Geography
The United Kingdom is a sovereign state situated west of continental Europe; its total area is 244,820 square kilometres. It comprises four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is the only part of the U.K. with a land border (with the Republic of Ireland); the rest of the state is surrounded by bodies of water (the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, the English Channel, and the Irish Sea. The English Channel separates the U.K.’s southern coastline from France.
The United Kingdom is renowned for its level plains and rolling green countryside. These predominate in the south and the east, whereas to the north and the west, the landscape includes rugged hills and low mountains. The capital is London.
The U.K. has a temperate climate, and one that is remarkably varied due to all the water surrounding the area – conditions can change greatly from one day to the next. Scotland in the north tends to be cooler than England, while Wales is generally wetter with more cloud cover. Temperatures generally range from around 0º Celsius in winter to 32º Celsius in summer. In all parts of the U.K., waterproof jackets should be part of the wardrobe.
History and Population
The U.K. has had a tumultuous history. In early times, the region’s predominantly Celtic people were invaded and influenced by a range of different nationalities, including Romans, Norsemen, Vikings, Saxons, and Normans. While the U.K. was for a long time a major colonizer (i.e., during the time of the British Empire), exporting its culture, values, and the English language around the world, it is now increasingly a nation of immigrants, with a diverse mix of European, Asian, and African nationalities influencing the culture as a whole. At the same time, British values continue to find voice around the world in such institutions as the Commonwealth, and to varying extents in the systems and structures of the countries of the former British Empire.
The current population of the U.K. is around 62 million. England is the most densely populated (approximately 52 million), with the majority of people living in the south east; Scotland’s population is around 6 million; Wales is about 3 million; and Northern Ireland is just under 2 million. English is the main language, but many other languages are also spoken due to immigration.
Society and Culture
The development and formation of the United Kingdom has occurred in a way that the cultures of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland overlap, yet still have their own diverse and clearly distinctive features. For more information on the distinct cultures, please check out the “More information” section of web links at the end of the U.K. write-up.
The average age is just over 39. The trend is for younger people to study for longer and for older people to spend more time in retirement. So the time spent in employment during a person’s lifetime has been reduced. Increased life expectancy and working women have also contributed to this trend.
A member of the G7 and G20 groups, the U.K. economy is the sixth largest in the world by purchasing power – and among the top three in Europe. It was historically the lead nation in becoming industrialized, and London remains one of the world’s main financial centers, contributing to the U.K.’s very globalized outlook.
Services, particularly banking, insurance, and business services, contribute by far the largest proportion of GDP, with industry and manufacturing becoming increasingly less important (as in most affluent nations). While it accounts for a relatively small proportion of GDP, the agricultural industry in the U.K. is highly intensive and efficient, producing roughly 60% of food needs but employing less than 2% of the labor force.
While it has now joined the EU, the U.K. has stayed out of the European Economic Monetary Union, so the currency remains the Pound Sterling.
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy/parliamentary democracy, and it is proud of its establishment of the Westminster system of government and British common law, which have since been applied in many different countries in the world. The U.K. was the foundation member of the Commonwealth and remains its flagship country today. A founding member of NATO, the U.K. is also a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
The government of England is still solely regulated by the U.K. parliament. Since Devolution in 1999, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have their own legislative bodies and more independent authority in governing their own countries. The chief of state in the U.K. is the Queen, and the prime minister is the head of parliament. England, Scotland, and Wales have regional county councils responsible for local government matters and the large cities (especially London) also have councils (burroughs) that are responsible for local government.
Living Conditions and Cost of Living
In the U.K., the cost of living can vary considerably depending upon location. Living costs can range from £120–£240 a week depending on accommodation. London is the most expensive area and can be up to 25% more than in other places in the U.K. Fees for overseas students studying in the U.K. can range from £4,000–£18,000 a year depending on the institution, the level, and the type of course. Further education fees are generally slightly lower than higher education fees.
Students from EU countries can receive National Health System (NHS) benefits while studying in the U.K., and may also be entitled to some financial or other forms of assistance. Non-EU students may be eligible for some health benefits under the NHS.
The U.K. lifestyle provides opportunities to experience a wide range of live theatre, museums, art galleries, historical towns and buildings. Travel is available to most parts of the U.K. via train and/or bus and the U.K. abounds in bed and breakfast accommodation as well as backpacker hostels.
The education system in the U.K. (except for Scotland) comprises four main sectors: primary, secondary, further education, and higher education.
Full-time education is compulsory for all children aged between 5 and 16 (inclusive). Students ordinarily attend primary until they are 11 years old and secondary until they are 16. They may then continue their secondary studies for a further two years (sixth form), leading most typically to an A-level qualification,
although other qualifications and courses exist, including the BTEC and the International Baccalaureate. The Education and Skills Act 2008 raised the leaving age for compulsory education to 18. State-provided schools are free of charge to students, and there is also a tradition of independent schooling, but parents may choose to educate their children by any suitable means.
Higher education typically begins with a three-year bachelor's degree. Post-graduate degrees include master's degrees (usually one year and/or research) and PhDs (at least three years). Universities require a royal charter in order to issue degrees, and the state finances all but one with low fee-levels for students.
While the four countries of the U.K. have differing approaches to vocational education and training (VET), the training and qualifications are interchangeable and of the same standard. Three of the countries (England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) share a common system of external qualifications within the National Qualifications Framework. There are separate bodies within each country responsible for regulating these qualifications.
England has approximately one-and-a-half million full- and part-time students studying in higher education. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education monitors and assesses standards across the range of qualifications offered. Further Education (FE) focuses on development of business and work skills and encourages ongoing lifelong learning and a skilled, efficient and productive workforce in England. The Learning and Skills Council and associated bodies formulate policy and administer further education.
In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, higher education bodies are independent, self-governing institutions active in teaching, research, and scholarship. The state, not the institution, issues degrees and higher education qualifications.
In Wales, the National Assembly is responsible for the broad direction of policy for further education through the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning (DELLS). There are 12 universities and 25 further education colleges and institutions in Wales. English-language programmes are offered within many of these and access to free language support is available at all Wales’ institutions. Over 8,000 international students currently study in Wales, with about 10% of these from non-European Union (EU) countries. Most of the universities are located fairly close to the southern and western coasts.
Education in Scotland
The Scottish system of education is quite distinct from the education systems of the rest of the U.K. From 1999, it has had its own legislative framework, curriculum framework, and qualifications system. The Scottish Parliament is responsible for the whole system and has established several agencies for education development. For example, the Scottish Qualifications Authority is responsible for issuing all qualifications. Scotland has one main university system: Scotland University, under which all of the individual universities operate.
Universities are located in all of the major cities of the country. Higher education courses in Scotland are usually one year longer than in other countries of the U.K. Emphasis is placed on breadth in a wide range of specialised subjects. Scotland prides itself on the standard of education provided and flexibility allowed in selecting subjects within a course. The Scottish approach is attractive to many students, as they are more likely to be able to change mid-stream in their studies.
Information Specific to International Students
The U.K. ranks second to the U.S. in international students’ preferences for study destinations. Since the 1999 launch of the Prime Minister’s Initiative (PMI), the U.K. has focused on providing more international student places in further and higher education. The U.K. has numerous further and higher education institutions for the international student to consider, and English-language courses are readily available throughout the four countries.
Visa applications for the four countries composing the United Kingdom go to the U.K. Border Agency. Students from the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland do not need a visa to study in the U.K. However, they need to meet the entry requirements of the course they wish to undertake within further and/or higher education, including English-language level requirements (e.g., IELTS).
International students from outside the EEA must apply for a Tier 4 Points Based System Visa. They can apply for a student visa through the Visa Application Centers in other countries (See www.visas.gov.uk). Non-EEA visa regulations are subject to ongoing review, so the student counselor should make sure to check for the most current rules; but as of this writing, these are the following types of student visa (source: UKBA website, listed below in links).
- Tier 4 (Child) Student: Students can apply for this visa if they are between four and 17. If they are between 4 and 15, they must be coming to the U.K. to study at an independent fee-paying school.
- Child Visitor: Students can apply as child visitors if they are 17 or younger and want to study in the U.K. for up to six months. Students with this visa cannot switch and apply for a Tier 4 (Child) student visa while in the U.K.; they would have to apply for it from their home country.
- Tier 4 (General) Student: For students coming to the U.K. for their post-16 education.Student Visitor: Students must be 18 or older, want to study in the U.K. for up to six months, and not want to work while studying. Students with this visa cannot switch to a Tier 4 (General) student visa in the U.K.; they would have to apply for it from their home country.
- Prospective Student: For students coming to the U.K. to help them decide which course to study, or for those who plan to start a course of study within six months. Students under this category will be able to switch and apply for a Tier 4 (General) or Tier 4 (Child) student visa while in the U.K.
Once approved, a visa is issued for the length of the course of study. Students may receive a visa for both an English-language and a Level 3 (further education) or Level 4 (higher education) course. Some student visas permit work while studying in the U.K.
Education U.K. Training from the British Council
In recognition of the work agents do to promote the U.K., a certificated online course has been designed for agents by the British Council. This global training program is delivered and managed in-country. The purpose of the course is to:
- Develop agents’ capacity to work effectively with U.K. institutions
- Improve knowledge and understanding of the U.K. as a study destination
- Increase knowledge of U.K. study program
- Enable agents/representatives to provide high-quality information, resources, and services to students seeking an international education
- Provide agents/representatives with the skills and resources needed to provide relevant, accurate, and trustworthy information.
The course is delivered online over a period of eight weeks with secure access. It comprises two units:
- Studying and living in the U.K.
- Costs and finance
- Working while studying
- Visas, immigration, and dependents
- Why choose a U.K. education
- How the U.K. education system works
- English-language learning
- School and tutorial college education
- Further and work-based education
- Higher education – undergraduate study
- Higher education – post-graduate study
- Study for a U.K. qualification in your own country
- Resources and support