Five Quick Points About the U.K.
- Second only to the U.S. as a study destination for international students
- London is a major financial centre for the world
- Increasingly multicultural
- Highly regarded for the quality of its higher education system
- Expanding post-graduate work opportunities for foreign students
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 Celcius in winter to 32º Celcius in summer. In all parts of the U.K., waterproof jackets should be part of the wardrobe.
Economy of the United Kingdom
A member of the G7 and G20 groups, the U.K. economy is the sixth largest in the world by GDP – and among the top three in Europe. It was historically the lead nation in becoming industrialised, and London remains one of the world’s main financial centres.
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 labour force. The currency of the UK remains the Pound Sterling.
Living Conditions and Cost of Living
In the U.K., the cost of living can vary considerably depending upon location. With the UK’s departure from the European Union in 2020, students from both EU and non-EU countries can expect to pay foreign student fees while studying in the United Kingdom. A 2022 QS article notes,
“Now, UK and EU students at English universities are required to pay up to £9,250 (~US$13,050) per year.
International undergraduate tuition fees vary considerably, starting at around £10,000 (~US$14,130) and going up to £38,000 (~US$53,700) or more for medical degrees.
…The total average cost of studying in the UK is estimated to be at least £22,200 (~US$31,380) per year, with studying in London likely to be significantly more expensive.”
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.
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.
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. 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. International students must apply for a Tier 4 Points Based System Visa. They can apply for a student visa through the Visa Application Centres in other countries.
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.