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Choosing the right British university

Foreign students are attracted to British universities for the world-class education and lively cultural scene. But picking the right degree requires careful research.

More young people than ever are choosing to travel abroad for their higher education. Around seven million students will be studying outside their home country by 2020, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)1.

Studying abroad can offer unique opportunities, from gaining exposure to other cultures and nationalities to attaining a qualification with a globally prestigious institution, such as the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

The UK is one of the most popular destinations for foreign students, attracting 430,000 people from more than 180 countries. Seventy UK education institutions are featured in the QS World University Rankings 2014-15, four in the top 102 . What’s more, many UK universities now compete fiercely to attract students from overseas who pay higher tuition fees than British students. Foreign students are tempted by attractive new facilities, a wide variety of courses and help with settling into university life.

If you think your child might benefit from a higher education in the UK, this guide will help you take the first steps to discovering the right course at the best institution.

University rankings: Who’s top of the class?

Oxford and Cambridge, along with London universities, such as Imperial College London and University College London, are considered to be the best in the UK – and among the best in the world. (See table 1)

Fig 1. Where international students come from
Source: British Council. Figures from 2013

There are, however, a large number of universities around the UK that offer world-class degrees and a wide variety of courses. The prestigious Russell Group of UK universities, which includes Edinburgh, Manchester, Durham, Warwick and Bristol, regularly feature at the top of university rankings for overall performance.

There are several internationally respected organisations that produce university rankings, offering insights on important factors such as teaching quality, student satisfaction and research activity. You can search for the top universities offering your chosen course, or compare universities based on other criteria. These should provide a good starting point for your own research.

QS World University Rankings

This ranking is compiled by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), an education research company in the UK. It’s based on a broad range of factors including: research activity and quality; how each institution is perceived by employers; and ‘international orientation’ – a measure that takes into account the diversity of students and staff.

Times Higher Education World University Rankings

The international diversity of staff and students is also taken into account with this ranking. But it is far more heavily weighted towards an institution’s ‘research influence’ – how often the academic papers it produces are cited by those of other institutions. It is based on data from Thomson Reuters, the US research firm, and published by the UK magazine, Times Higher Education.

The Guardian University Guide

Unlike other rankings of UK universities, The Guardian’s system doesn’t include research scores. Instead it focuses on the elements of university life that ‘matter most to students’, from enrolment through to graduation. An institution’s position is determined by combining scores across eight criteria, including teaching quality, staff-to-student ratio and post-graduation employability.

Why location is so important

Beyond the quality of teaching and courses available, it is also important to consider the lifestyle offered by different universities. The university’s location is one of the biggest factors in the type of experience a student has. Considering the choice between a campus, city or collegiate university is a good place to start.

Campus universities

These have most of their buildings, accommodation and social facilities in one area, often just outside a city. Students have everything they need for studying and socialising within walking distance. This small university ‘town’ can offer a real sense of community. Campus universities include the University of Sussex, just outside Brighton, the University of York and the University of Nottingham.

City universities

With their accommodation and buildings spread across the city, these may be less convenient for students. However, city living can offer a more rounded experience, as well as wider choices for socialising.

Collegiate universities

A combination of campus and city universities: they have buildings throughout the town or city, but there are also a number of separate colleges where students work, live and socialise. Oxford, Cambridge and Durham are the only universities to use this system.

Extra-curricular and social activities

Universities often have lively sports and social scenes for students to fit in around their degree work. If your child has a particular interest in an extra-curricular activity, such as acting, journalism, rugby or swimming, this can prove to be a deciding factor.

An extensive survey commissioned by Which?, a widely respected independent consumer organisation in the UK, asked students to rate how sporty, political or creative their university was3. Institutions were also rated on the diversity of local nightlife and the variety of student union activities.

The Which? University website features profiles of 119 UK institutions assessed on all these features, along with useful round-ups of the top 10 performers for creativity and sport. To make the final choice on where to apply, take a step back and think about the overall quality of experience your child can expect in one place or another. Consider which location offers the best environment and opportunities that will encourage your child to flourish.

Tuition fees

Paying for your child to study in another country is a major investment. In the UK, international undergraduate fees level out at around £12,000 a year, although costs vary widely depending on the course and the institution4. Science and medicine courses tend to be much more expensive than those in arts and humanities. These require less spending on technology and facilities.

The most highly-rated universities are, not surprisingly, also among the most costly. Among the UK’s most expensive courses for international undergraduates are the Medicine and Veterinary Medicine degrees at the University of Cambridge. Tuition fees in the 2015/16 academic year are £36,4595. However, if you look a little further down the rankings, you can find high-quality courses that cost considerably less.

Institution Ranking2 International undergraduate tuition fees for the 2015-16 academic year3
University of Cambridge 2= From £15,063 to £36,459, depending on the course5.
Imperial College London 2= From £23,500 to £36,400, depending on the course6.
UCL (University College London) 5= From £15,660 to £30,800, depending on the course7.
University of Oxford 5= From £14,845 to £21,855, depending on the course, excluding Clinical Medicine (an additional college fee of £6,925 will also apply to all courses)8 
Table 1. UK universities featured in the world’s top 10

The cost of living

On top of tuition fees, you need to factor in the general cost of living, which will vary depending on location. The average annual cost of living in England for students outside of London is £12,056, according to figures from the UK’s National Union of Students (NUS) based on the 2013/14 academic year. However, in London this jumps to £13,521, mainly because of higher rents9.

For students living away from home for the first time, the best option – at least in the first year – will be university halls of residence. These are large buildings situated on a university campus or near the main university buildings in town. Students have their own room but typically share facilities, such as a kitchen.

Alternatively, students could find accommodation in the private sector, which means renting a house or flat directly from a landlord, potentially with friends. This is more common in the second or third year of a degree course.

Instead of renting accommodation for your child during their university course, an alternative is to buy a property. The main benefits of doing so are:

  • You will save on the rental money you would otherwise pay
  • Your child may have access to superior accommodation where you can come and visit them
  • The property will be an investment that may grow in value while your family is using it, though this is not guaranteed.

Any property purchase represents a long-term commitment, so you should do your research carefully.

Alongside your calculations for the general cost of living and accommodation costs, remember that, for visa purposes, international students must show they have enough money to cover the fees for their first period of study and living costs for up to a maximum of nine months. Your chosen institution determines the amount.

Applying to your chosen university

Once you’ve decided, make sure you get your application in well before the deadline, particularly if you are applying to one of the top universities.

International students from outside the EU should apply through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) by 15 January in the year their course is due to start. For courses at Oxford, Cambridge, along with most medicine, veterinary and dentistry courses at any institution, it’s by 15 October in the previous year. For more information on the application process, visit the UCAS website.

Studying abroad is a life-changing opportunity for a young person and, when it comes to studying in the UK, there is a wealth of options to suit every talent, taste and budget.

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