Universities in the United Kingdom

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"British Universities" redirects here. For the cricket team of this name, see British Universities cricket team.

Universities in the United Kingdom have generally been instituted by Royal Charter, Papal Bull, Act of Parliament or an instrument of government under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. For new public universities, approval is required from the Privy Council, while private universities may be granted the right to use the title by Companies House. The exact criteria for University title vary between the four countries of the United Kingdom. Degree awarding powers, which are three-tiered and allow the granting of foundation degrees, taught degrees, and research degree, are granted by the Privy Council on the advice of the Quality Assurance Agency.[1]

Institutions that hold degree awarding powers are termed Recognised Bodies, this list includes universities, university colleges, colleges of the University of London, higher education colleges, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Listed Bodies offer courses leading to degrees of a Recognised Body, this includes institutions whose degrees are validated by a recognised body, and the colleges of the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, and the Highlands and Islands. Undergraduate applications to almost all UK universities are managed by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS)

While legally, University refers to an institution that has been granted the right to use the title, in common usage it now normally includes colleges of the University of London, including in official documents such as the Dearing Report.[2][3] These include a number of institutions that feature regularly in the league tables of the world's top universities, such as UCL, the LSE and King's College London.

The central co-ordinating body for universities in the United Kingdom is Universities UK.


Universities in Britain date back to the dawn of mediaeval studium generale, with Oxford and Cambridge taking their place among the world's oldest universities. No other universities were successfully founded in England during this period; opposition from Oxford and Cambridge blocked attempts to establish universities in Northampton[4] and Stamford.[5] Medical schools in London (i.e., Barts and St Thomas's), though not a university in its own right, were among the first to provide medical teachings in England.[6][7]

In Scotland, St Andrew's, Glasgow and King's College, Aberdeen were founded by Papal Bull. Post-Reformation, these were joined by Edinburgh, Marischal College, Aberdeen, and the short-lived Fraserburgh University. In England, meanwhile, Henry VIII's plan to found a university in Durham came to nothing and a later attempt to found a university at Durham during the Commonwealth was successfully opposed by Oxford and Cambridge.[8] Gresham College was, however, established in London in the late 16th century, despite concerns expressed by Cambridge.[9] In Ireland, Trinity College Dublin was founded as "the mother of a University" by a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth.

The 18th century saw the establishment of medical schools at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities and at hospitals in London. A number of dissenting academies were also established. But the next attempt to found a university did not come until the Andersonian Institute (now Strathclyde University) was established in Glasgow in 1798.

19th century expansion[edit]

The French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic wars led to over 40% of universities in Europe closing. From 153 universities in 1789, numbers fell to only 83 in 1815. The next quarter century saw a rebound, with 15 new universities founded, bringing numbers back to 98 by 1840.[10]

In England, the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the arrival of Catholic seminaries driven from the continent by the French Revolution and the establishment of the St Bees Theological College to train Anglican priests in 1816. The first Anglican college to move beyond specialist training to provide a more general university education in Arts was in Wales: St David's College, Lampeter (now part of the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David) was founded in 1822, opened in 1827, and gained a royal charter in 1828.

By then, the higher education revolution was well under way. Between 1824 and 1834 ten medical schools were established in provincial cities; many of these went on to form the nuclei of the redbrick universities,[11] and in 1825 there was serious talk of founding a third English university in York.[12] This would, however, have required government support. The opinion of Robert Peel – cabinet minister and MP for Oxford University – was sought, and (after consulting with his constituents) he advised against proceeding.[13]

This period also saw the establishment of Mechanics Institutes in a number of cities. The first of these, established in Edinburgh in 1821, would eventually become Heriot-Watt University,[14] while the London Mechanics Institute, established in 1823, developed into Birkbeck, University of London.[15] Many others would eventually become polytechnics and then, in 1992, universities. The Royal Polytechnic Institution opened at 309 Regent Street on 6 August 1838 to provide (in the words of its prospectus of 1837) “an institution where the Public, at little expense, may acquire practical knowledge of the various arts and branches of science connected with manufacturers, mining operations and rural economy.”

Very soon after news of the York scheme broke, Thomas Campbell wrote to The Times proposing a university be founded in London. This would become UCL, founded in 1826 as a joint stock company under the name of London University. Due to its lack of theology teaching, its willingness to grant degrees (if it were given this power) to non-Anglicans, and its unauthorised assumption of the title of "university", this inspired calls in 1827 for the foundation of a 'true and genuine "London University"' by royal charter,[16] to be known (in the same manner as Edinburgh was officially known as the College of King James VI) as "The College of King George IV in London".[17] This became King's College London, granted a royal charter in 1829 – but as a college rather than a university.

UCL was revolutionary not just in admitting non-Anglicans (indeed non-Anglicans were allowed to study at Cambridge, but not to take degrees, and UCL could not grant them degrees); it also pioneered the study of modern languages and of geography,[18] as well as appointing the first Professor of English Language and Literature, although the study of English Literature as a distinct subject was pioneered by King's College London.[19] Neither of the Colleges was residential – a break from the two ancient English universities, although non-residential universities were the norm in Scotland.

1830 saw the election of a Whig government under Earl Grey, and in early 1831 news broke that a charter was to be granted to the London University, officially recognising it as a university and thus enabling it to award degrees.[20] Cambridge voted to petition the King not to allow the awarding of degrees with the same name as theirs or Oxford's.[21] The charter was blocked.

Then, later in 1831, a plan was announced to found a university in Durham. Grey's government supported the bill to establish the university, despite it limiting its degrees to Anglicans. Thus the University of Durham was established by Act of Parliament in 1832, and opened in 1833. In 1836 it pioneered the system of external examiners for its final degree examinations, bringing in Oxford academics to ensure the same standards. It was incorporated by royal charter in 1837 and awarded its first degrees the same year. In 1838 it opened Britain's first course in engineering, and in 1846 pioneered "halls" accommodation, where students let rooms ready-furnished and serviced by shared staff, and took all their meals together. This was in contrast to the system at Oxford and Cambridge (and in Durham 's original college) where students had to furnish their own rooms, supply their own servants, and provide their own food.

In 1834, the House of Commons backed the granting of a charter to the London University. In 1835, the government responded by announcing its intention to establish the University of London as an examining board that would grant degrees to affiliated colleges and medical schools. This was done in 1836, with the old London University accepting a charter as a college under the name of University College, London.

The new University of London achieved one of the principal goals of the founders of UCL: it would award degrees without any religious test, the first university in England to do so. The first degrees were conferred in 1839 to students from UCL and King's College London. But from 1840 it affiliated other colleges and schools, opening up the possibility of degrees for many students who would not previously have attended a university. Another big step came in 1858 when the system of affiliated colleges was abandoned and London degrees were opened to any man who passed the examination. From 1878, University of London degrees were opened to women – the first in the United Kingdom.

In 1845, Queen's Colleges were established across Ireland: in Belfast, Cork and Galway, followed by the establishment of the Queen's University of Ireland in 1850 as a federal university encompassing the three colleges. In response, the Catholic University of Ireland (never recognised as a University by the British state, although granted degree awarding power by the Pope) was established in Dublin by the Catholic Church. This eventually led to the dissolution of the Queen's University in 1879 and its replacement by the Royal University of Ireland, an examining board after the pattern of the University of London.[22]

The first women's college was Bedford College in London, which opened in 1849. It was followed by Royal Holloway (with which it merged in the 1980s) and the London School of Medicine for Women in London and colleges in Oxford and Cambridge. After London opened its degrees to women in 1878, UCL opened its courses in Arts, Law and Science to women, although it took the First World War to open up the London medical schools. By the end of the 19th century, the only British universities not granting degrees to women were Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin.

Non-Anglicans were admitted to degrees at Oxford in 1854, Cambridge in 1856 and Durham in 1865. The remaining tests were (except in theology) removed by the University Tests Act 1871, allowing non-Anglicans to become full members of the University (membership of Convocation at Oxford and Durham or the Senate at Cambridge) and to hold teaching positions.[23][24]

An Act of Parliament was passed in 1858 that modernised the constitutions of all of the Scottish universities. Under this Act, the two universities in Aberdeen were united into the University of Aberdeen (explicitly preserving the foundation date of King's College) and the University of Edinburgh was made independent from the town corporation.

The first of the civic university colleges was the Anglican Queen's College, Birmingham, built on the nucleus of the Birmingham Medical School, which gained its royal charter in 1843 but did not ultimately prove a success. This was followed in 1851 by Owens College, Manchester. Further university colleges followed in Newcastle (1871), notable for admitting women to its courses from the start,[25] Aberystwyth (1872),[26] Leeds (1874),[27] Bristol (1876), Sheffield (1879), Mason College, Birmingham (1880), Dundee (1881),[28] Liverpool (1881),[29] Nottingham (1881), Cardiff (1883), and Bangor (1884). With the exceptions of Newcastle (associated with Durham) and Dundee (associated with St Andrews), all of the university colleges prepared their students for London degrees.

In the late 1870s, Owens College applied for University status. After objections by other civic colleges, it was decided instead to erect the Victoria University as a federal body, with Owens College as, initially, its only college. It was joined by Liverpool in 1884 and Leeds in 1887.

In 1889, government funding was provided to the English provincial university colleges (with the exception of Queen's College, Birmingham), along with Dundee in Scotland, and UCL and King's College in London.[30] Government funding was already being provided to the ancient Scottish universities, the University of London, and to the Welsh and Irish colleges. Bedford College in London (1894),[31] Reading (1901)[32] and Southampton (1902)[33] were later added to the grant to university colleges.

In 1893 the University of Wales was established as another federal body, uniting the colleges in Aberystwyth, Cardiff and Bangor, but not St David's College, Lampeter.

The late 19th century saw UCL and King's College London campaigning for a say in how the University of London was run, alongside a campaign for a "teaching university" for London. Royal Commissions were held and a charter was drawn up for the "Albert University" that would have seen the two colleges leave the University of London and form a federal body, like the colleges of the Victoria University. In the end it was decided to reform the University of London itself, this was put into effect by an Act of Parliament in 1898, leading to completely new statutes establishing the federal University of London in 1900.

20th century[edit]

1900 also saw Mason College, Birmingham (which had absorbed the Medical School from Queen's College in 1892) become the University of Birmingham. This was the first of the redbrick universities to gain university status. Over the next decade the Victoria University dissolved, its colleges becoming the universities of Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool, and the colleges in Sheffield and Bristol also gained University status as the University of Sheffield and the University of Bristol. The last of the original provincial university colleges, in Newcastle, remained connected to the University of Durham, but moved to a federal structure with equal Newcastle and Durham divisions. In Ireland, Queen's College Belfast became Queen's University Belfast, and the other colleges formed the National University of Ireland, replacing the Royal University.

The First World War caused financial crises in many British universities and university colleges. This led to the formation of the University Grants Committee after the war, with Oxford, Cambridge and the Durham division of Durham University finally accepting government funding. Only one institution, Reading University (1926), became a university between the wars. New University colleges were set up in Leicester (1921), Exeter (1922) and Hull (1927).

Expansion after 1945[edit]

After the Second World War, there was an enormous expansion in the demand for higher education.[34] A final public university college was set up in Keele in 1949; this was the first university college to receive full degree awarding powers as a college rather than on becoming a university (St David's College, Lampeter, held limited degree awarding power from the mid 19th century, but could only award BA and BD degrees).

Between 1948 (Nottingham) and 1967 (Dundee) all of the university colleges (except those that had become colleges of the University of London) achieved independent university status. Newcastle University is notable for having been made a university in 1963 by Act of Parliament rather than by royal charter. The 1960s saw a large expansion in the number of universities in the UK with eight universities, known as the plateglass universities, established as new institutions rather than from earlier university colleges, a number of other institutions that had not been university colleges promoted directly to university status following the Robbins Report in 1963, and the Open University founded as a distance-learning University.

In 1973 the University College at Buckingham was established as a private sector, non-profit college, opening in 1976. It awarded "licences" that were externally examined in the same manner as degrees, rather than being associated with the University of London or another parent University like the earlier university colleges. In 1983 it became the UK's first private university after being granted a Royal Charter as the University of Buckingham.[35]

Since 1992[edit]

A major change to UK higher education occurred in 1992 with the abolition of the "binary divide" between universities and polytechnics. By the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, the polytechnics and the Scottish central institutions all became universities, nearly doubling the number of universities in the UK.

In 1993 the University of London underwent a major shake-up, with the larger colleges being granted direct access to government funding and the right to confer University of London degrees themselves. This was a major step towards their being recognised generally as de facto universities.

In 1997, Cardiff University (then the University of Wales, Cardiff) was granted degree awarding powers. This was the first time such powers had been granted to a constituent institution of a University (although the University of Wales, Lampeter held degree awarding powers, these were granted prior to it joining the federal university). Over the next decade, all of the constituent institutions of the University of Wales and many of those of the University of London gained their own degree awarding powers.

In 2005, Cardiff University left the University of Wales, which shifted to a confederal structure in 2007 before being essentially dissolved following a series of scandals in 2011. In 2007 Imperial College left the University of London, raising fears about the future of that federal institution. However, it has survived and attracted new members, although many of the larger colleges now award their own degrees. In 2016, City University, London will be the first institute to voluntarily surrender university status when it becomes a college of the University of London.

University funding from 1945[edit]

In the years following the end of the Second World War, local education authorities (LEAs) paid student tuition fees and provided non-mature[clarification needed] students with a maintenance grant. Under the Education Act 1962 a national mandatory award of student maintenance grant was established, payable by the LEAs to students on most full-time courses. In 1980, the level of grant increased from £380 to £1,430.[36]

As the university population rose during the 1980s the sums paid to universities became linked to their performance and efficiency, and by the mid-1990s funding per student had dropped by 40% since the mid-1970s, while numbers of full-time students had reached around 2,000,000 (around a third of the age group), up from around 1,300,000.

In 1989 the levels of maintenance grants were frozen at £2,265 – which since 1985 had been means tested – but a system of student loans was introduced to provide for additional funding. Initially loans of up to £420 were available, and could be taken out by all students.[36] The costs of tuition continued to be met in full for all domestic[clarification needed] students.

Following an investigation into the future of universities, the July 1997 report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education,[37] chaired by the then Sir Ronald (later Lord) Dearing recommended the ending of universal free higher education, and that students should pay £1,000 towards the cost of their tuition fees, which would be recovered in the form of a graduate tax.

At the time of the Dearing Report, tuition fees were still paid in full by the local education authorities, student grants of up to £1,755 (£2,160 in London) were linked to family income, and a subsidised student loan of £1,685 (£2,085 in London) was available. Instead of following Dearing's suggestions, the grant was replaced by the present loan scheme, introduced for students starting in 1998. There was a transition year when about half the previous means-tested grant was available, though they still had to pay the new £1,000 tuition fee. From 1999, the grant was abolished altogether.

The abolition of tuition fees was a major issue in the 1999 Scottish Parliamentary elections, and subsequently was part of the agreement that led to the Labour/Liberal Democrats coalition that governed Scotland from 1999 to 2003.

From the academic year 2006/7, a new system of tuition fees was introduced in England. These variable tuition fees of up to £3,000 per year are paid up-front as previously, but new student loans are available that may only be used to pay for tuition fees, and must be repaid after graduation, in addition to the existing loan. In fact, there is very little variation in the tuition fees charged by universities—nearly all charge the maximum tuition fee on all courses. Instead, the differences appear in the nature and value of various 'access' bursaries that are on offer.


UK universities can be categorised in a number of different ways. One of the earliest was by George Edwin Maclean in a 1917 report for the US Department of the Interior,[38] who split the universities into ancient universities of England (including Durham[39]), Scottish universities, the University of London, the "new or provincial universities", and the university colleges (Maclean's report only covered England and Scotland, Wales is thus omitted). The 1963 Robbins Report split the (then existing) universities into seven categories: the ancient universities of England, the ancient universities of Scotland, the University of London, the older civic universities of England (Maclean's "new or provincial" universities, with the addition of Durham, which at the time took in Newcastle), the University of Wales, the newer civic universities of England (mostly comprising Maclean's university colleges), and the new foundations in England (the plate glass universities).[40] Divisions similar to these form the basis for groupings used commonly today.

Categorisation by age & location[edit]

These groupings tend to be somewhat fuzzy in definition:

  • Ancient universitiesthe six universities founded before 1800, often subdivided into the Ancient Universities of Scotland and Oxbridge in England. When used historically it can also include the University of Dublin (now in the Republic of Ireland) and Marischal College, Aberdeen and King's College, Aberdeen (now merged to form the University of Aberdeen). The definition is sometimes stretched to include Durham[41] and/or Dundee,[42] both of which share some characteristics with the true ancient universities.
  • St David's College, Lampeter and Durham Universityfounded in the early 19th century as religiously-exclusive, residential university institutes, following the Oxbridge pattern.[43] Neither fits well into the category of either civic universities or ancient universities.
  • University of London and its constituent colleges – founded in London from the early 19th century onwards as non-residential university colleges, following the pattern of the ancient universities of Scotland.[44]
  • Red Brick universities or Civic Universities – founded in provincial cities as non-residential university colleges in the later 19th and early 20th century,[45] sometimes used to mean any university established between 1800 and 1992.[46] As noted above, the Robbins Report included Durham as a Civic University, but since the separation of Durham and Newcastle it is more common to refer to Newcastle as a Civic University and to omit Durham from this group. Robbins divided the civic universities into two groups (older – the six red-bricks and Durham/Newcastle – and younger for later foundations), and also considered Keele to fall into this category,[40] although it is often classified with the plate glass universities.
  • Scottish Chartered Universities – Scottish universities created by Royal Charter in the 1960s[47] covering three universities (Strathclyde, Heriot-Watt and Dundee) with origins as 18th and 19th century university colleges and one new institution (Stirling).
  • Plate Glass universitiesnew institutions created in the 1960s as residential universities with degree-awarding powers from the start (in contrast to being created as university colleges),[48] formerly described as the 'new universities'. The UGC took the decision to create these universities in the late 1950s and early 1960s, prior to the Robbins Report,[40] however the term is also frequently used to encompass the universities created as a result of that report.
  • Robbins expansion universities – Universities created as a result of the recommendations of the 1963 Robbins Report. This includes former Colleges of Advanced Technology (CATs), other former colleges, and the University of Stirling. These are often rolled in with the plate-glass universities and sharing their former description of 'new universities'. The term is sometimes erroneously used to describe the plate glass universities, which were already approved prior to the report.[49]
  • The Open UniversityThe UK's 'open to all' distance learning university (est. 1968).
  • Old universitiesInstitutions that were part of the University sector prior to 1992, including universities created by ancient usage, Act of Parliament, or Royal Charter, and full colleges of the federal Universities of London and Wales in 1992; this includes all of the above categories.[50]
  • New Universities or Post-1992 universities – granted University status by an instrument of government under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, including former Polytechnics, Colleges of Higher Education, and other Higher Education Corporations, but not including older university institutions that have gained University status since 1992 via royal charter (e.g., Imperial College or Cardiff University).

Mission groups[edit]

These are actual groupings with defined memberships:[51]

  • Russell Group – self-selected association of 24 public research universities.
  • Million+ – coalition of post-1992 universities
  • University Alliance – coalition of "business engaged" (mostly) post-1992 universities.
  • Cathedrals Group – coalition of (mostly) new universities with historic links to one or more of the Christian churches.[52]
  • Independent Universities Group – private universities.[53]

Categorisation by structure[edit]

  • Unitary universities – the standard structure, with all teaching and services provided by the central University. Long standard in Scotland, the first unitary university in England was Birmingham in 1900.
  • Examining Board universities – modelled on the separation of teaching in College and examination by the Senate House in the University of Cambridge, the University of London (1836–1900) and the Royal University of Ireland (1880–1909) were set up to function purely as examining boards; there are no current universities in this category.
  • Federal universities – Starting with the Queen's University of Ireland (1850–1880) a number of universities have been federal in nature, including the Victoria University (1880–1904), the University of Wales (1893–2007), Durham University (1909–1963) and the Federal University of Surrey (2000–2004); the only current federal universities in the UK are the University of London (from 1900) and the University of the Highlands and Islands (from 2011).
  • Collegiate universities – the classical Oxbridge model of a university containing a number of colleges. In addition to Oxford and Cambridge, this has been adopted by Durham, York, and Lancaster, although these differ from the Oxbridge model in that there is no teaching in their colleges. The University of Roehampton and the University of the Arts London are also collegiate, with teaching taking place in academic departments associated with the colleges.[54][55] Federal universities are also sometimes referred to as collegiate.

Statistical categorisation[edit]

A report in 2015 used grouping analysis to divide UK universities into four tiers based on how elite they were based on data on academic selectivity, research activity, teaching quality, socio-economic exclusivity and economic resources. The top tier consisted of only Oxford and Cambridge. The second tier contained the remaining universities from the Russell Group along with the former members of the defunct 1994 Group (except for the University of Essex), all of the pre-1992 universities in Scotland, and the University of Kent. The third tier was the remaining pre-1992 universities (with the exception of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD), which is technically pre-1992 as it operates under the University of Wales, Lampeter's 1828 Royal Charter), many of the former polytechnics and central institutions, and a few former HE colleges that became university colleges and then universities after the polytechnics. The fourth tier has the remaining polytechnics and the majority of the former HE colleges, along with UWTSD.[56]


The universities in the United Kingdom (with the exception of The Open University) share an undergraduate admission system operated by UCAS. Applications must be made by 15 October for admissions to Oxford and Cambridge (and medicine, dentistry and veterinary science courses) and by 15 January for admissions to other UK universities.[57]

Many universities now operate the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS) and all universities in Scotland use the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) enabling easier transfer between courses and institutions.

One-half of universities have lost confidence in the grades that are awarded by secondary schools, and require many applicants to sit for a competitive entrance examination. According to the Schools Minister, “strong evidence has been emerging of grade inflation across subjects” in recent years.[58]

Some subjects, particularly where highly competitive or that lead to a professional qualification, require that students be interviewed prior to being offered a place on the chosen course.

Legal Status[edit]

All UK universities are independent bodies; unlike in the US and other European countries there are no government-owned universities. Instead, 'public' universities are considered to be those who receive funding directly from one of the funding councils for teaching and research, while 'private' universities are funded by tuition fees alone.

With the exception of three private for-profit universities, British universities are charities. There are four principal charity regulators for UK universities. For universities outside England, this is the relevant national regulator, i.e. the Charity Commission for England and Wales for Welsh universities,[59] the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator for Scottish Universities,[60] and the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland for both Northern Irish universities.[61] In England, most (all but 20) higher education institutes are exempt charities that are not registered with the Charity Commission; the principal regulator for universities that are exempt charities is the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) while for those that are not exempt it is the Charity Commission.[62] Both of the two charitable private universities in England are regulated by the Charity Commission.[63][64]

Universities in the UK have a wide variety of legal structures, leading to differences in their rights and powers, and in who is a member of the corporation.[65][66]

The most common form among "old" universities is incorporation by royal charter. The form and objectives of the corporation are laid down in the individual charter and statutes, but commonly all graduates are members of the university. Many London colleges were also incorporated by this route. At the ancient Scottish universities the corporation is formed, under the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889, by the Court rather than the graduates.[67] At Oxford and Cambridge (each incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1571 but treated as chartered corporations) only graduates who have proceeded to the academic rank of MA are members of the university. A chartered corporation may not change its statutes without the approval of the Privy Council.

Newcastle University is the only UK university to be a statutory corporation, and the only "old" University not incorporated by royal charter, having been created by the Universities of Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne Act 1963. Among London colleges, Royal Holloway, University of London was created in 1985 by the Royal Holloway and Bedford New College Act 1985 (merging the 19th century Royal Holloway and Bedford colleges), and is similarly a statutory corporation. The main difference between this and a chartered corporation is that a statutory corporation has no power to do something that is not aligned with its defined aims and objectives.[68]

Most new universities are Higher Education Corporations, a form of corporation created by the Education Reform Act 1988 to incorporate the Polytechnics independently of their local councils. In a higher education corporation, only the governing board is incorporated, not the graduates. Some newer London colleges share this status.

Some new universities are companies limited by guarantee, a common form of incorporation used inter alia for some charities. The London School of Economics is also incorporated in this manner.

The University of Chester and Bishop Grosseteste University are both unincorporated trusts within the Church of England. This was also the original form of Durham University (at that time also a church university) between its foundation in 1832 and its incorporation by royal charter in 1837.


The vast majority of United Kingdom universities are government financed, with only five private universities (the charitable University of Buckingham and Regent's University London, and the for-profit institutions The University of Law,[69] BPP University and Arden University[70]) where the government does not subsidise the tuition fees. (There is also the non-profit Richmond, The American International University in London which essentially offers an American liberal arts education; this is not a UK university but is accredited by the American Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.[71])

British undergraduate students and students from other European Union countries who qualify as home students have to pay university tuition fees up to a maximum of £9,000. A government-provided loan may only be used towards tuition fee costs. Scottish and European Union students studying in Scotland have their tuition fees paid by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland. Students are also entitled to apply for government-provided loans to pay for living costs, a portion of which is also means-tested. A new[when?] grant is also available, which is means-tested and offers up to £2,700 a year. As part of the deal allowing universities to charge higher tuition fees, all universities are required to offer bursaries to those in receipt of the full government grant. Different funding arrangements are in place for students on[clarification needed] National Health Service (NHS) being eligible for a non-means tested bursary, while healthcare students on degree level courses are eligible for a means tested bursary, and are not eligible for the full student loan as a result of their bursary entitlement.

Students living in the UK, if they are from a non-European country, have to pay the same very high fees as overseas students, even if they have been in the UK for more than 3 years, without indefinite leave to remain. Such students are not eligible for a loan from the Students Loan Company either.

On 9 December 2010 the House of Commons voted to increase the cap on tuition fees to £9,000 per year.

Students in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are also eligible for a means-tested grant, and many universities provide bursaries to poor students. Non-European Union students are not subsidised by the United Kingdom government and so have to pay much higher tuition fees.

In principle, all postgraduate students are liable for tuition fees—though a variety of scholarship and assistantship schemes provide support. The main sources of funding for postgraduate students are research councils such as the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) and ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council).

King's College London, one of the founding colleges of University of London.


British universities tend to have a strong reputation internationally for two reasons: history and research output. The UK's role in the industrial and scientific revolutions, combined with its imperial history and the sheer longevity of its ancient universities, are significant factors as to why these institutions are world-renowned. The University of Cambridge, for example, has produced 90 Nobel Laureates to date–more than any other university in the world.[72] The reputation of British institutions is maintained today by their continuous stream of world-class research output. The larger research-intensive universities, including many civic universities, are members of the Russell Group, which receives two-thirds of all research funding in the UK.

The perceived rankings of universities in the United Kingdom are also heavily influenced by the popularity in recent years of newspaper league tables that rank universities by teaching and research. Only three universities in the UK have never (since the start of university league tables in the 1990s) been ranked outside the top ten, with Cambridge and Oxford being consistently ranked in the top 3 positions and Warwick no lower than tenth.

The UK's top universities have fared well in international rankings, where three have been consistently ranked[79] in the world top ten according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, these being Oxford (2nd in 2015–16), Cambridge (4th) and Imperial (8th); while the 2015–16 top 50 also includes UCL (14th), LSE (23rd), Edinburgh (24th), and KCL (27th). A further 9 UK universities (16 in total) rank in the top 100 for 2015–16.[78]

A Chinese Academic Ranking of World Universities also places Cambridge (5th in 2015) and Oxford (10th) consistently in the world top ten.[93] University College London (18th), Imperial College London (23rd), The University of Manchester (41st), and the University of Edinburgh (47th) also make the top 50 and 3 more UK universities (9 total) are in the top 100.[92]

In the QS World University Rankings, the Universities of Cambridge (3rd in 2015/16), Oxford (6th), UCL (7th), Imperial (8th) are consistently present in the top ten.[98] KCL (19th), Edinburgh (21st), Manchester (33rd), LSE (35th), Bristol (37th), and Warwick (48th) also make the top 50 and a further 8 UK universities (18 total) make the top 100.[97]

The University of Warwick (est. 1965) and the University of York (est. 1963) ranked 3rd and 6th respectively in the 2012 QS Top 50 under 50 universities.[99] For the 2015 rankings, both were outside of the age bracket, but the University of Bath (est. 1966) ranked 7th and 6 other UK universities (all established in 1966 or 1967) made the top 50.[100]

The London School of Economics has been seen to consistently perform worse than might be expected (from its position in the national league tables) in global rankings. The school was ranked 11th in the world in 2004 and 2005 within the THE-QS World University Rankings, the School, but dropped to 66th and 67th in the 2008 and 2009 edition. The school administration asserts that the fall was due to a controversial change in methodology which hindered social science institutions.[101] In January 2010, THE concluded that their existing methodology system with Quacquarelli Symonds was flawed in such a way that it was unfairly biased against certain schools, including LSE.[102] As a result of these changes, LSE rose 39 places between the 2010/11 and 2011/12 rankings.[103] Further changes were made to the THE methodology in 2015 (for the 2016 rankings), including moving from Thompson-Reuters to Elsevier's SCOPUS as a date source.[104] In 2015, QS followed THE in recognising that its methodology penalised arts and humanities research compared to life sciences and natural sciences and introducing changes intended to minimise this effect.[105] As a result, LSE and Durham University both rose over 30 places from the 2014 table to the 2015 table, LSE going from 71st to 35th and Durham from 92nd to 61st.[96][97] The ARWU, which is focused on research and is admitted by its creators to downplay social science and humanities,[106] continues to rank both institutes outside of its top 100.[92]

The UK Golden Triangle Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, KCL, UCL, Imperial and LSE, along with Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol and Warwick rank in the top 50 of at least one of the leading international league tables and in the top 100 of the majority (for rankings published in 2015). This is in sharp contrast to domestic league tables where (in the 2016 rankings, i.e. those published in 2015) KCL, Edinburgh and Manchester are outside of the top 20 in all three tables, Bristol's highest rank is 15th in the Complete University Guide, and UCL's highest placing is 10th in the Times/Sunday Times table. Similarly, Exeter, Surrey and Lancaster, which make the top 10 in the majority of domestic tables, do not rank highly on international tables, while St Andrews and Durham make the top 5 in most domestic tables but fail to make the top 50 internationally.

UK universities are linked with the world's fastest national computer network run by JANET and funded by JISC.


In England and Wales the majority of young full-time university students live away from home;[107] this is not generally the case for universities in most European countries, such as Italy and Spain. So most universities in the United Kingdom provide (or at least help organise) rented accommodation for many of their students, particularly in the first year; some British universities provide accommodation for the full duration of their courses. So the lifestyle of university students in the United Kingdom can be quite different from those of European universities where the majority of students live at home with their parents. The introduction of university fees paid by students from 2006 onwards has led many English and Welsh students to apply to institutions closer to their family's homes to reduce the additional costs of moving and living farther away.

The University of London from its reform in 1900,[108] and the University of Wales from its inception in 1893 until its reform in 2007, have been federal universities. They have a central governing body with overall responsibility for the maintenance of standards at the constituent colleges. Recently, however, there has been considerable pressure from the larger colleges to become more autonomous and, in some cases, completely independent institutions. Examples of this were the secession of Imperial College London from the University of London and Cardiff University leaving the University of Wales. Cardiff's departure and policies pursued by the Welsh Government have led to the breakup of the University of Wales, which is in the process of merging with the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, with an expected completion date of 2017.[109][110]

The London School of Economics (a college of the University of London) was founded as a company registered at Companies House, having no Royal Charter or founding Act of Parliament. The University of Buckingham was the only private university in the UK until 2012.

Two universities, Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln and the University of Chester, are unincorporated trusts under the trusteeship of their local Church of England dioceses.

The University of Warwick, originally to be named the University of Warwickshire when it was established in 1965, is several miles from Warwick, the county town, and is situated on the southern edge of Coventry in the West Midlands county. Following the county boundary changes, Warwick University's campus straddles the Warwickshire and city of Coventry boundary, although many of its students live in the nearby towns of Kenilworth and Leamington Spa, Warwickshire.

John Banks Jenkinson was petitioner for the Royal Charters of both the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (granted in 1828) and Durham University (granted in 1837), as Bishop of St David's and Dean of Durham.

Student representation[edit]

UK universities have a statutory obligation to support their students in the establishment of some form of Students' Union (sometimes also called a "Students' Association" or "Guild of Students", and, in the Scottish Ancients, a Students' Representative Council). These associations are usually members of the National Union of Students of the United Kingdom and/ or their local NUS area organisation.

Whether or not universities actually do conform to such statutory obligations, and if, for example, the code of practice of the NUS is followed when determining the make-up of such bodies is a hotly contested and ambiguous matter.[citation needed] There is no real or well-implemented vetting service used to ensure that, for example, Students' Union Presidents are fairly (or non-discriminatingly) selected – or that a minimal, standardised and regional method of ensuring an allocation of annual university funding is directed towards such students' union bodies.

Post-nominal abbreviations[edit]

In common with practice worldwide, graduates of universities in the United Kingdom often place not only their academic qualifications but also the names of the universities that awarded them after their name, the university typically (but not universally) being placed in parentheses, thus: John Smith, Esq, BSc (Sheffield), or John Smith BSc Sheffield. Degrees are generally listed in ascending order of seniority followed by diplomas. An exception may be made when a degree of a different university falls between two degrees of the same university:[111][112] John Smith, MSci (York), PhD (London); Jane Smoth BA, PhD (London), MA (Bristol).

Some older British universities are regularly denoted by an abbreviation of their Latin name. Notably Oxon, Cantab, Dunelm are used for the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, which are different from the English abbreviation. For other universities, such as St And for St Andrews, Glas for Glasgow, Aberd for Aberdeen, Edin for Edinburgh or Lond for University of London, the Latin and English abbreviations are identical (both Aberdon[113] and Londin[114] are used occasionally, making the Latin explicit). More recently established universities also sometimes use Latin abbreviations, especially when they share the name of an episcopal see, in which case they sometimes use the same abbreviation that the bishop uses for his signature.

On 30 March 2007 the University of Oxford issued a document entitled 'Oxford University Calendar: Notes on Style', which promulgated a new system of abbreviations for use in publications of that university. The general rule is to use the first syllable and the first letter of the second syllable. Thus Oxford and Cambridge became 'Oxf' and 'Camb'. The change was controversial (p. 2, n. 1) but was considered essential to preserve consistency since most of the United Kingdom's universities can be rendered only in English. This document also counsels against the use of parentheses.

Abbreviations of universities and other degree-awarding bodies
Latin abbreviation English abbreviation Latin name English name Notes
Aberd[115][116] Aberdonensis University of Aberdeen
Aber Dund[116] Abertay University, Dundee
Ang Rus[116] Anglia Ruskin University
Arts Lond[116] University of the Arts London
Bedf[116] University of Bedfordshire
Belf[116] or QUB[117] Queen's University Belfast
Birkbeck[116] Collegium Birkbeck Londiniense Birkbeck, University of London
  or BBK
Birm[116] Birminghamiensis University of Birmingham
  or B'ham[118]
Birm City[116] Birmingham City University
Bourne[116] University of Bournemouth
Brad[116] Bradfordiensis University of Bradford
Brigh[116] University of Brighton
Bris[116] Bristoliensis University of Bristol
Brun[116] Brunel University
Buck[116] University of Buckingham
Cantab[119] Camb[116] Cantabrigiensis University of Cambridge
Cant Univ[116] Canterbury Christ Church University
Cantuar[116] Lambeth[120] Cantuariensis Archbishop of Canterbury's degrees, also known as Lambeth degrees Cantuar is also used by University of Canterbury, NZ; Oxford style guide recommends (unlike university degrees) the use of the Latin abbreviation for Lambeth degrees.
Card[116] Cardiff University
Cen Lancs[116] or UCLan[121] University of Central Lancashire
Ches[116] University of Chester
Cicest[122] Chich[116] Cicestensis University of Chichester Use of Cicest for Chichester is rare
City Lond[116] City University London
Cov[116] University of Coventry
Cran[116] Cranfield University
UCA[123] University for the Creative Arts
Cumb[116] Cumbriensis or Cumbriae University of Cumbria
De Mont[116] De Montfort University
Dund[116] Dundensis University of Dundee
Dunelm[124][125][126] Durh[116][127] Dunelmensis Durham University Both abbreviations in use from mid 19th century
East Ang[116] or UEA[128] University of East Anglia
East Lond[116] or UEL[129] University of East London
Edin[116] Edinburgensis University of Edinburgh
Exon[130] Exe[116] Exoniensis University of Exeter
Glam[116] University of Glamorgan Now part of the University of South Wales
Glas[116] Glasguensis University of Glasgow
Glas Cal[116] Glasgow Caledonian University
Glouc[116] University of Gloucestershire
Greenw[116] University of Greenwich
GSMD[116] Guildhall School of Music and Drama
H-W[116] Heriot-Watt University
Herts[116] University of Hertfordshire
Hudd[116] University of Huddersfield
Imp Lond[116] Imperial College London
IOE Lond[116] Institute of Education, London Now part of UCL
Cantuar[132] – (Kent) Cantuariensis (= Canterbury) or Cantiensis University of Kent Use of Cantuar for Kent is rare and risks confusion with both Lambeth degrees and the University of Canterbury, NZ. The Latin name for Kent is Cantium (hence Cantiensis) which would give Cant (also used by the University of Canterbury, NZ); the University of Kent was originally the University of Kent at Canterbury.
KCL[116] King's College London For pre-2008 award, use University of London's post nominal abbreviation.[133] Certain period from 2008 allowed respective graduates to choose from the two awarding bodies.[134]
Lanc[116] Lancastriensis University of Lancaster
ULaw Collegium iurisprudentiae University of Law Previously known as The College of Law
Leeds Met[116] Leeds Metropolitan University
Leic[116] Leicestriensis University of Leicester
Linc[116] Lincolniensis University of Lincoln
Liv,[116] Liverpolis University of Liverpool  
  Lpool[135] or L'pool[136]
Liv Hope[116] Liverpool Hope University
Liv J Moores[116] Liverpool John Moores University
Lond[116][137] Londiniensis or Londinensis[138] University of London The Bishop of London uses Londin in his signature[139]
or Londin  
Lond Met[116] London Metropolitan University
LSE[116] London School of Economics and Political Science For pre-2008 award, use University of London's post nominal abbreviation.[140]
LSHTM[141] London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Lond SB[116] London South Bank University
Lough[116] or Lboro[142] University of Loughborough
Manc[116][143] Mancuniensis University of Manchester
Manc Met[116] Manchester Metropolitan University
Middx[116] University of Middlesex
Newc[116] or Ncle[144] Newcastle University Both also used by the University of Newcastle (Australia).
North Lond[116] University of North London
N'ton[116] University of Northampton
N'ria[116] University of Northumbria
Nott[116] University of Nottingham
Nott Trent[116] Nottingham Trent University
Oxon[145] Oxf[116] Oxoniensis University of Oxford
Oxf Brookes[116] Oxford Brookes University
Plym[116] University of Plymouth
Port[116] University of Portsmouth
Qu Marg[116] or QMU[146] Queen Margaret University
QMUL[141] Queen Mary, University of London For pre-2013 award, use University of London's post nominal abbreviation.[147] From 2013, transition period applies.[148]
R'dg[116] or Rdg[149] University of Reading
Robt Gor[116] Robert Gordon University
Roeh[116] University of Roehampton
RAM[116] Royal Academy of Music
RCA[116] Royal College of Art
RCM[116] Royal College of Music
RHUL[141] Royal Holloway, University of London
RVM[116] Royal Veterinary College
St And[116] Sancti Andreae University of St Andrews
Salf[116] Salford University
SOAS[141] School of Oriental and African Studies
Sheff[116] University of Sheffield
Sheff Hallam[116] Sheffield Hallam University
Soton[150] S'ton[116] Sotoniensis University of Southampton
S'ton Sol[116] Southampton Solent University
Staffs[116] University of Staffordshire
Stir[116] University of Stirling
Strath[116] University of Strathclyde
Sund[116] University of Sunderland
Sur[116] University of Surrey
Sus[116] University of Sussex
Tees[116] University of Teesside
Thames V[116] Thames Valley University Now the University of West London
UCL[116] University College London For pre-2005 award, use University of London's post nominal abbreviation.[151] Note further that from 2005, a transition period applies.[152]
Wales[116] Cambrensis University of Wales Camb for Cambrensis would risk confusion with Cambridge. The Oxford Calendar style guide gives 'Wales" as the abbreviation for Wales.
Warw[116] University of Warwick
West Eng[116] or UWE[153] University of the West of England
West Sco[116] University of the West of Scotland
Westmin[116] University of Westminster
Winton Winc[116] University of Winchester
Wolv[116] University of Wolverhampton
Worc[116] University of Worcester
Ebor[154][155] – (York) Eboracensis University of York York (not actually an abbreviation) is also used by York University (Canada)


The first merger between British universities was that between King's College, Aberdeen and Marischal College, Aberdeen under the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858 to form the University of Aberdeen, explicitly maintaining the foundation date of King's College.

In 1984 the New University of Ulster merged with Ulster Polytechnic to form Ulster University. There have also been a number of mergers between colleges of the University of London, of particular note is the merger of Royal Holloway College and Bedford College in 1985 by Act of Parliament.

Cardiff University merged with the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology in 1984, and then re-merged with the University of Wales College of Medicine in 2004, the two having previously been separated in the 1930s.

Also in 2004, the Victoria University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology merged to form the University of Manchester.

In 2002, London Guildhall University and the University of North London merged to form London Metropolitan University.[156]

At around the same time a merger was proposed between Imperial College London and University College London, but was abandoned following protests.[157]

In 2011, a merger was proposed between two universities in Scotland: University of Abertay Dundee and University of Dundee. This similarly did not occur.

In Wales, the University of Wales Lampeter and Trinity University College merged in 2010 to form the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, with Swansea Metropolitan University joining in 2012 and the University of Wales committed to joining once out has completed its commitments to current students. Legally this was a takeover rather than a merger as UWTSD remains incorporated under Lampeter's 1828 charter.

Also in Wales, the University of South Wales was formed in 2013 by a merger of the University of Glamorgan and the University of Wales, Newport. The University of Wales Institute Cardiff declined to take part in the merger, becoming Cardiff Metropolitan University.

Value of academic degrees[edit]

A study by the Office for National Statistics in 2013 found that, although university graduates are consistently more likely to be employed than other people, they are increasingly likely to be overqualified for the jobs which they do hold. The study also found that the type of degree is significant. On average, medical undergraduates earn the most at £45,600 per year, while media and information studies undergraduates earn the least at £21,000 per year (but have the second highest employment rate, behind only medicine). Finally, the study found that a degree from a Russell Group university is worth almost 25% more on average than a degree from a non-Russell Group university. This can be explained at least in part by the higher proportions of students studying medicine, engineering, and physical or environmental sciences at Russell Group institutes, and their higher entrance requirements selecting these, making them more likely to go on to higher-paid jobs.[158]

A study in 2015 from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit has found that, six months after graduation, the proportion of graduates who are either in full-time employment or studying for an advanced degree ranges from 78.7% for civil engineers to 51.2% for artists. There is also a wide variation in the proportion of graduates who are underemployed. For example, the most common employment fields for civil and mechanical engineers are engineering and construction. On the other hand, the most common workplaces for media studies graduates are shops and restaurants.[159]

A study by the Sutton Trust in 2015 found that, after taking student loan repayments into account, a higher apprenticeship (at level 5 on the Qualifications and Credit Framework, equivalent to a Foundation Degree) delivered higher lifetime earnings on average than a degree from a non-Russell Group university. Despite this, polling for the report found that apprenticeships have a lower perceived value than degrees.[160]

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has agreed with other institutions which have found that graduates of professional programs such as medicine, law, maths, business and economics are likely to earn much higher lifetime earnings than graduates of a humanities program such as the creative arts. It also found that there is a wide variation in graduate earnings within subjects, even between graduates from the same institution. A significant cause of this variation is the wealth of graduates' family backgrounds.[161]

The Intergenerational Foundation has found that liberal arts degrees have become so common and academically undemanding that they have lost much of their value. Making matters worse, employers have responded to the oversupply of graduates by raising the academic requirements of many occupations higher than is really necessary to perform the work. Therefore many students are finding that, compared to a professional degree in fields such as medicine or engineering, or a higher apprenticeship in a skilled trade, a liberal arts degree no longer provides a good ROI for the time and money invested.[162]

Academic standards[edit]

Concern exists about possible grade inflation. It is claimed that academics are under increasing pressure from administrators to award students good marks and grades without regard for those students' actual abilities, both to keep those students in school paying tuition and to boost the school's graduation rates. It is also claimed that academics who enforce rigorous standards risk receiving poor student course evaluations.[163][164]

Another concern is that the government has pressured universities to take more applicants from disadvantages backgrounds and to increase diversity in their student population, forcing them to spend more effort on this and less on research and education, leading to a decline in their position in the Times Higher Education international reputation ranking. Other experts, however, link this decline to problems getting visas for international staff and lack of investment.[165]

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) regularly reviews all UK universities to ensure standards are maintained.[166] It is also responsible for producing subject benchmark statements and descriptions of the different degree levels (foundation, bachelor's master's and doctorates).[167] The QAA also certifies that British degrees (with the exception of Oxbridge MAs, which it does not consider to be academic degrees) meet the level descriptors for the Bologna process, with the caveat that initial medical degrees are at master's level but retain the name of bachelor's degrees for historical reasons and that similarly the MAs of "a small number of universities" in Scotland are at bachelor's level.[168] In some subjects (particularly those with associated chartered status), professional bodies also accredit degrees, e.g. the Institute of Physics accredits physics degrees.[169]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Anderson, Robert David. Universities and Elites in Britain since 1800 (1995).
  • Anderson, Robert David. European Universities from the Enlightenment to 1914 (2004).
  • Anderson, Robert David. Education and Opportunity in Victorian Scotland: schools and universities (1983).
  • Axtell, James. Wisdom's Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University (2016), covers all of Europe
  • Carswell, John. Government and the Universities in Britain: programme and performance 1960-1980 (1986).
  • Curtis, Mark H. Oxford and Cambridge in transition, 1558-1642: an essay on changing relations between the English universities and English society (1965).
  • Dahrendorf, Ralf. LSE: a history of the London School of Economics and Political Science, 1895-1995. (1995).
  • Davie, George Elder. The democratic intellect: Scotland and her universities in the nineteenth century (2000).
  • Harrison, Brian, ed. The History of the University of Oxford: Volume VIII: The Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 1994).
  • Irish, Tomás. The University at War, 1914-25: Britain, France, and the United States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
  • Moss, Michael S., J. Forbes Munro, and Richard Hughes Trainor, eds. University, city and state: the University of Glasgow since 1870 (2000).
  • de Ridder-Symoens, Hilde. A history of the University in Europe: Volume 1, universities in the middle ages (2003).
  • Simpson, Renate. How the Phd Came to Britain: A Century of Struggle for Postgraduate Education (1984).
  • Thomas, John Bernard. British universities and teacher education: A Century of change (1990).
  • Vernon, Keith. Universities and the State in England, 1850-1939 (Routledge, 2004).
  • Whyte, William. Redbrick: A Social and Architectural History of Britain's Civic Universities (2015).

External links[edit]