Below are answers to questions about how the higher education system in England works. Note that it applies only to England – Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own arrangements. While the information is correct at the time of publication, it is of course subject to change.
What is the difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ universities?
The two oldest universities in England are Oxford, believed to have been founded in the eleventh century, and Cambridge, founded in the thirteenth century. Oxford and Cambridge are collegiate universities, and their governance structures are different from other universities (see below).
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that other universities began to appear in England, including University College London (1826) and Durham University (1836). Universities such as these were known as redbricks, to distinguish them from Oxford and Cambridge.
The expansion of higher education in the 1960s, supported by the publication of the Robbins Report in 1963, led to a wave of universities being established, including Warwick, Sussex and Newcastle. After the Robbins report, institutions previously known as colleges of advanced technology, a type of higher education institution established in 1956, also became universities. These included Aston, Salford and Brunel.
The 1960s also saw the rise of polytechnics and colleges of advanced technology – degree-awarding institutions that offered courses with a vocational bent. They were funded by local education authorities, and their degrees validated by the Council for National Academic Awards. The Education Reform Act 1988 converted them into independent corporations and, funding became the responsibility of the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council (PCFC). The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 allowed these institutions to apply for university status, and almost all did so. There are 69 post-1992, or “new”, universities in England.
In 1969, the Open University was founded. It became the first university in the country to offer degrees purely through distance learning.
How are universities governed?
Most of the pre-1992 universities were established by a royal charter granted through the Privy Council, with an associated set of statutes. (A small number were established by an Act of Parliament.) The structure of governance for each university is laid down in the instruments of its incorporation, namely the Act or charter and the statutes. The charter and statutes can only be amended on application to the Privy Council. Typically these pre-1992 institutions have a council, which is the executive governing body, which oversees the conduct of the university in conjunction with the senate, the body responsible for directing and regulating the university’s academic work.
The London School of Economics and the Institute of Cancer Research are also exceptions amongst the pre-1992 universities: they are companies limited by guarantee.
The situation for the post-1992 universities is very different. Under the 1988 Act, the polytechnics (as they then were), which had previously been maintained by local education authorities, were now established as higher education corporations (HECs). The Act stipulated that any HEC should be conducted in accordance with articles of government approved by the Secretary of State. Model articles were prepared by the then Department of Education and Science to guide institutions in drawing up their own articles. The 1992 Act amended the earlier legislation and set out the general format for an instrument of government, to be made by each HEC and approved by the Privy Council, governing the membership and constitution of the governing body. The Act also required HECs to make new articles of government to be approved by the Privy Council.
The governance requirements for the post-1992 universities were set out in the 1992 Act. It states that each new university must have a governing body of between 12 and 24 members and an academic board, responsible for academic affairs. The governing body must meet at least four times a year. It is responsible for awarding degrees. The academic board is responsible for academic affairs, including research and teaching. It should not have more than 30 members, and 50% of the membership must be made up of senior managers, such as heads of faculty.
Southampton Solent University, Introduction to the legal framework and corporate governance of higher education
What makes Oxford and Cambridge different from other universities?
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge have different governance arrangements from other universities. They do not have a royal charter, nor an associated Act of Parliament. They are civil corporations that create their own statutes under the Oxford and Cambridge Act 1923, with approval by the Privy Council (Cambridge all statutes, Oxford only some statutes). If they want to make changes to the more important statutes, they require the authority of the Privy Council.
The sovereign body of Oxford is Congregation, which has a membership of several thousand academic and academic-related staff. Congregation is the legislative body and any decision of Congregation taken by majority vote binds the university.
The governing body of Cambridge is the Regent House, which has a membership of several thousand academic and academic-related staff, principally those holding established University Offices. The Regent House is the legislative body and any decision of Regent House taken by majority vote binds the university.
In practice, in both universities the Council acts as the executive body, subject to the will of Congregation or the Regent House.
In Oxford the Council is made up of elected members of Congregation, ex-officio holders of some university posts and four external members. Three student members are entitled to attend meetings of Council. In Cambridge the Council is wholly elected by the Regent House, with the exception of four external members and three student members. The business of the University in Oxford is conducted by the publication of proposed new or revised statutes in the University Gazette. Regulations, which are a lower form of domestic legislation, are also published in the Gazette but they automatically become part of the university’s domestic legislation unless members of Congregation object, in which case there is a debate. Proposals to create or amend statutes are automatically put up for debate. A debate is held at a meeting of Congregation and a majority vote decides the matter.
The business of the University in Cambridge is conducted by the publication of Reports to the University, in the University Reporter, including recommendations about the form of either statutes or ordinances, which are a lower form of domestic legislation. There is then an opportunity for Discussion of the Report, with all speeches published in the Reporter, before the Council publishes a Grace (or legislative Act). Members of the Regent House may call a Non Placet or propose an Amendment, and then there is a postal ballot which decides the matter. Otherwise the Grace is approved by default and becomes part of the University’s domestic legislation (subject in the case of statutes to approval by the Privy Council).
In both universities legislation may be initiated by the sovereign/governing body and be Debated or Discussed and voted on in the same way.
What are the Russell Group universities?
Formed in 1994, the Russell Group consists of 24 research-intensive universities in the UK, which have voluntarily come together. The group’s aim is to represent the interests of its members, for example through lobbying government. Currently, all the group’s members are older universities, founded before 1992. All but four are in England. Their substantial research income reduces their reliance on tuition fees and makes them more financially secure.
Source: Russell Group website
Are there any other university groupings?
The MillionPlus group describes itself as the “Association for Modern Universities in the UK, and the voice of 21st century higher education”. It has 20 members, all of which are post-1992 universities. The 1994 group was formed to represent the interests of smaller research universities, but disbanded in 2013.
Source: MillionPlus website
What subjects are taught at English universities?
Most English universities teach a wide range of subjects in the sciences, social sciences and humanities, though there are a handful of specialist institutions that teach a more limited range, such as music and drama colleges. Broadly speaking, the new universities (the former polytechnics and colleges of higher education) are more likely to offer applied or vocational courses such as tourism, journalism or real estate management. Twenty-five English universities have medical schools attached, while seven have veterinary schools attached.
Some universities specialise in particular subject areas, rather than offering the full range of academic subjects. These include the University of the Arts, which offers courses in art and design, SOAS University of London, which focuses on the study of Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East, and the London School of Economics (LSE), which specialises in the social sciences.
Science courses are more expensive for universities to run than humanities and social science courses. According to a 2015 report, veterinary science courses cost approximately £20k a year per full-time student, while medicine costs about £15k per student. Humanities and social sciences cost universities about £6k to £7k per student. Because universities typically charge the same fee for all courses, humanities and social science students are to some extent subsidising science students.
In the past five-to-ten years, a number of universities have closed their languages departments, in response to falling demand. Compared with other humanities courses, language degrees are relatively expensive to run, so it makes more financial sense for universities to encourage undergraduates to take degrees in subjects such as English and history.
Sources: Times Higher Education (2015), What Courses Cost, 26 March, Financial Sustainability Strategy Group (2015), The sustainability of learning and teaching in higher education in England, March
What is the Committee of University Chairs?
The Committee of University Chairs (CUC) is a non-profit organization representing the chairs of UK universities. Its role is to develop the Higher Education Code of Governance, and it also brings governing body chairs together to share information and expertise about university governance. CUC’s advice is taken seriously by universities and by organisations such as Universities UK and the Department for Education. In 2018 it published the Senior Staff Remuneration Code, and in 2019 it will undertake an independent review of code. Neither Oxford nor Cambridge belongs to the CUC because their governing bodies do not have chairs.
Source: Committee of University Chairs (2018), The Higher Education Senior Staff Remuneration Code
Are universities in England public or private institutions?
The vast majority of universities in England are public, which means they receive government funding. Almost all these public universities are registered as charities.
How many public universities are there in England?
It depends how you count them. Using a broad definition, there are 130 public universities in England. That figure includes degree-awarding institutions without “university” in their name, such as the Royal College of Music (RCM) or the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). Not all degree-awarding institutions are allowed to use the word “university” in their name. If we count only those with names that include the word “university”, there are 103 public universities in England.
Does England have any private universities?
Currently there are five private universities in England: the University of Buckingham, BPP University, Regent’s University London, the University of Law and Arden University. They don’t receive any government funding for research; all their money comes from tuition fees. The Higher Education and Research Act (2017) made it easier for private providers to enter the market, however.
There are a few other private institutions that offer degrees, but do not have the word “university” in their title. These include the New College for the Humanities, which awards University of London degrees, and the American University, Richmond, which awards Open University degrees. There is also the London Institute of Banking & Finance, which has the right to award its own degrees.
Can universities fail?
Yes. As student numbers drop in some universities, and income from tuition fees falls, there is a risk that some universities will close or merge. The risk is biggest for those universities that are more focused on teaching than research. The new regulator, the Office for Students, has said that it “will not bail out providers in financial difficulty”.
Sources: The Guardian (2018), Struggling universities will be shut down, not saved – it’s not fair for students, 18 MayThe Guardian (2018), Cut-throat A-level season ‘pushing some universities towards insolvency’, 28 August, The Guardian (2018), We won’t bail out failing universities, says regulator, 6 November
How do league tables work?
A number of organisations produce league tables that rank universities. The most well-known ones used to rank UK universities are those produced by the Guardian, Times Higher Education and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS). The tables rank individual universities according to an overall score, and also according to individual subjects.
These rankings work by scoring universities (and individual subjects) according to certain measures. Each measure is weighted, and the scores are then aggregated to provide a single score. The QS rankings, for example, use the following measures – weightings are in brackets: academic reputation, based on a survey of academics (40%), faculty/student ratio (20%), citations per faculty (20%), employer reputation, based on a survey of employers (10%), international student ratio (5%) and international staff ratio (5%).
The problems with this kind of ranking should be immediately apparent. The weightings are arbitrary. The score is heavily dependent on the quality of the data used: in particular, how reliably can academics rate the quality of other institutions, when they only have experience of two or three?
League tables that rank how universities perform in individual courses also use weighted measures. The Guardian Guide, for example, rates courses according to “how much they [students] will benefit from the teaching, whether other students liked the university and the subject, and what their chances are of getting a good job.” It relies heavily on data drawn from the National Student Survey, which is unreliable for a number of reasons (see Sources below).
International league tables, particularly those produced by Times Higher Education and QS, have a growing influence in building reputations and attracting students. They have become a way of determining, not just a particular university’s status, but that of a country’s entire higher education system, depending on how many universities that country has in the top 10 or top 100.
Not every university takes part in the league tables. In 2018, Birkbeck, University of London, announced it was withdrawing from UK university rankings.
Sources: Birkbeck (2018), Birkbeck to leave UK University League Tables, CDBU (2017), Why the NSS is garbage, 13 February, The Guardian (2016), How to use the Guardian University Guide, 23 May, The Guardian (2014), Why does Switzerland do so well in the university rankings? 1 October
How many students are there in English universities?
In 2016, there were 1,861,345 students in England. The number entering higher education has been increasing each year. Approximately 33% of 18-year olds now go to university. Many now choose to attend university when they’re older, however – within a few years, about half of all 30-year olds will have attended university. The upward trend matches that in other developed countries. In South Korea, for example, more than 80% of young people attend university.
Sources: Hefce archive, Monitoring outcomes of the Student Opportunity allocation 2015-16, The Economist (2018), Glutted with graduates, 3 November
Is there a limit on the number of students who can attend university?
No. There used to be a limit, but the government removed it in 2015. Many universities are now taking in more students to increase revenue.
Source: The Guardian (2018), Removing the cap on student numbers, 18 September
What is the impact of removing the cap on numbers?
Universities increasingly compete for students: the more students they can take in, the more money they receive in tuition fees. Some universities now make unconditional offers to some students to bring more in. As the more popular universities increase their intake, less popular universities have to cope with fewer students and less income.
Source: Times Higher Education (2016), Unlimited student recruitment ‘transforms’ English universities, 17 February
What are student contracts?
Some universities expect students to sign a contract that commits both the institution and the student to certain conditions. This can include, for example, the university’s commitment to providing a certain amount of teaching, and the student’s commitment to attending lectures and tutorials. It also typically covers matters such as the university’s use of the student’s personal data, their intellectual property rights and the student’s fulfilment of visa and immigration conditions.
The government has said it will consider introducing legally binding contracts for students, though no formal announcement has been made. In theory, such a contract would allow students to sue their university for failure to deliver on promises.
Student contracts reinforce the idea of the relationship between students and universities as one of consumers and suppliers. Arguably it could be used as an alternative to the Teaching Excellence Framework for monitoring fulfillment of student expectations.
Sources: Universities UK (2018), Student contracts: Ensuring a transparent and accountable relationship between universities and students, 1 August, The Guardian (2017), University contracts could help students sue if tuition is poor, 20 July
How are universities in England regulated?
They are regulated by the Office for Students (OfS), which came into being in 2018 and replaces two previous regulators: the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), which was responsible for allocating funding to universities; and the Office for Fair Access (Offa), which worked with universities to increase access to disadvantaged groups.
Source: Government website (2018), New universities regulator comes into force, 1 January
What is the Higher Education and Research Act?
The Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) was passed in 2017, replacing the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992. It created a new regulatory framework for higher education in the UK, but also enacted measures to make the higher education landscape more competitive and market-driven. The Act has four parts:
- Creation of the new Office for Students (OfS). The OfS, which came into being in 2018, replaces the old Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce). The OfS has several roles: protecting students’ rights to a good quality higher education that includes value for money; providing grants to higher education providers; granting degree-awarding powers to providers; and promoting wider access (a role previously performed by the Office for Fair Access). Under the remit of the OfS, it would become easier for private providers to enter the market. The OfS’s powers include the requirement to evaluate the quality of standards applied to higher education institutions. In practice, this involved the creation of the TEF as a proxy for measuring teaching performance.
- Creation of United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI). This brought together the UK’s seven research councils under one umbrella, enabling them to pool resources, and to strengthen interdisciplinary research.
- Amended previous legislation on student loans, replacing the word “loan” with the phrase “loan, or alternative payment” to take in sharia-compliant payments by the Student Loans Company. This section of the Act also expanded the Office of the Independent Adjudicator’s role in handling student complaints to cover any higher education provider on the OfS’s register.
- The fourth section dealt with miscellaneous issues relating to transitional arrangements.
The Higher Education and Research Bill was introduced to the Commons for its first reading by the then universities minister Jo Johnson. There was a good deal of opposition to the Bill, and the House of Lords made some amendments, including additional constraints on the ability of private providers to enter the market, and preventing the TEF from being used to create a ranking of universities.
The Act faced substantial criticism from organisations such as the NUS and CDBU, the opposition parties and independent education experts, including Alison Wolf, who commented that “sweeping general legislation might make it easier to set up a really small, innovative, educationally wonderful institution, but it’s much more likely to mean we end up with the American-style catastrophe.”
Sources: Education Investor (2016), Private university plans ‘risk catastrophe’, 23 March
How are research funds allocated?
For many years, the Haldane principle that decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians held good in academia. That principle has gradually been eroded as successive governments have tried to steer researchers in the direction of research that is economically or socially useful. The extent to which the Haldane principle is still in force is debatable.
In England, the Higher Education Funding Council England (Hefce) used to provide block grants to institutions for research. In April 2018, HEFCE was replaced by Research England, which is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). UKRI, which replaces the old research councils, was created by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.
The amount each institution receives is based on the quality of their research, determined by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which uses a set of metrics to evaluate the research output in university departments. The most recent REF was carried out in 2014, and the next one will be carried out in 2021.
Universities can also apply to UKRI for funding for specific research projects.
Source: Hefce archive, How we fund research
How does the Teaching Excellence Framework work – and is it tied to funding?
Just as the REF evaluates research and allocates research funding accordingly, the original aim of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) was to evaluate the quality of universities’ teaching and reward those that scored best. The framework, which was applied for the first time in 2017, judges universities on three broad metrics: how they performed in the National Student Survey; their drop-out rates; and how many of their graduates are in employment or studying for a higher degree six months after graduation. Each university is allocated a gold, silver or bronze rating depending on how well it has done. TEF is now being extended to evaluate individual degree courses as well as universities as a whole.
It is too early to say what the impact of TEF will be, either on student recruitment, or on university funding, but the original plan to allow universities with a high TEF rating to raise tuition fees is under review.
Source: Wonkhe (2017), A beginner’s guide to the Teaching Excellence Framework, 18 June
What is the role of Universities UK?
Universities UK (UUK) represents all universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its membership is made up of the vice-chancellors and principals of universities in the UK. Previously known as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), it took on the new name in 2000. It works to influence policy through, for example, producing parliamentary briefings and working with government departments on policy issues such as funding, immigration and regulation.
Source: Universities UK
Do universities have charitable status?
Almost all public universities in England have charitable status, which means they are exempt from most forms of taxation. Charitable status also imposes limits on certain kinds of commercial and revenue-raising activities.
Some are registered with – and therefore regulated by – the Charity Commission. Most, however are exempt charities, which means they are not registered with the Charity Commission, and instead are regulated by the Office for Students. These universities are still subject to the law governing charities.
Each university’s charitable objects is set out in its constitutional documents. These are typically aims such as advancing education, learning and research.
All charities must have trustees. In the case of universities, these will almost always be the members of the governing body.
Source: Hefce archive, Regulating universities as charities – FAQs
How are public universities funded?
Universities have two principal sources of funding:
- Tuition fees
- Research grants
The bulk of research funding comes from the government via UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a body formed in 2018 that brings together seven pre-existing research councils, Innovate UK, and the new Research England. The amount of funding universities receive from UKRI is partly dependent on how well they perform on an evaluation known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF), carried out every five years.
The funding comes in two forms. Research England, a new council in UKRI, provides annual funding for English institutions in the form of a block grant, and the other seven UK research councils provide funding for specific research projects and programmes. This is known as the dual support system.
Many universities, however, also receive research grants from other sources, such as business, charities and the EU.
Some universities are more heavily research-focused than others. Those that have a stronger focus on teaching are more dependent on tuition fees, and therefore more reliant on keeping up student numbers to remain viable. Typically the universities more focused on teaching than research are those created after 1992 – the former polytechnics.
Because some subjects are expensive to teach, tuition fees don’t always cover the cost of teaching, so the government provides a top-up in the form of teaching grants.
Source: Universities UK (2016), University Funding Explained
How do tuition fees work?
The government allows universities to charge up to £9,250 a year for undergraduate courses. When the upper limit for tuition fees was raised from £3k to £9k, the government believed that some universities would not charge the full amount. In practice, almost all do so.
The vast majority of students take out a loan from the Student Loans Company, a government-owned organisation, to pay their tuition fees. The company then pays the fees directly to universities.
Universities are also able to bring in more money by charging higher fees to students from outside the EU.
The system of finance in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland works differently.
Sources: Ucas, Undergraduate tuition fees and student loans, BMJ (2015), The lifetime cost to English students of borrowing to invest in a medical degree: a gender comparison using data from the Office for National Statistics, BBC (2017) Student debt rising to more than £50,000, says IFS, 5 July
How do students pay their living costs?
Students are entitled to a maintenance loan from the Student Loans Company of between £3,928 and £8,430 a year, depending on household income. It’s slightly higher for students studying in London. Students pay back the loan under the same terms as they pay back their tuition fee loans.
Until 2016, poorer students were also available for a small maintenance grant, which they didn’t have to pay back, but this has been abolished.
The small size of the maintenance loan is perhaps the biggest barrier to poorer students studying at university. The loan is generally eaten up by accommodation costs, and students without additional parental support often need to work during term time or vacations to earn enough to pay the rest of their living costs. Some students receive top-ups from their parents, take out overdrafts or borrow heavily on their credit cards.
Student debt on leaving university (including living expenses) is normally about £50k. For medical students, the debt on leaving university is typically nearer £70k. There is a risk that this will deter poorer students from studying medicine and related subjects such as dentistry.
Source: Government website, Student Finance
How many students have paid employment during term-time?
More than 70% of full-time undergraduate students take on paid work during term-time.
Source: Endsleigh (2015) 77% of students now work to fund studies, 10 August
How do students pay back their loans?
Students don’t have to pay anything back until they have left university and are earning more than £25k a year. (The threshold has been recently changed from £21k a year.) They pay back 9% of whatever they earn over the threshold. For example, if a graduate is earning £28k, then they pay back 9% of £3k, which is £270 a year, or £22.50 a month.
The catch, however, is that interest rates on loans have risen, increasing the size of the debt. For those earning more than £41k, the interest rate is 6.1%, which is calculated from the retail price index (RPI) plus 3%. For those earning les than £41k, the interest rate is lower. So for example, for a graduate earning £31k, the interest rate will be the RPI plus 1.5%.
Although the high rate of interest increases the size of the debt, it doesn’t increase how much students have to repay each year. And if a student hasn’t repaid their loan within 30 years of graduation, then the debt is written off. In practice, 77% of students will have part or all of their debt written off because they won’t earn enough to repay their loans within 30 years of graduating.
The government has the power to adjust both thresholds and interest rates, so the amount a student can expect to pay back on their loan at the point at which they take it out cannot be guaranteed to remain the same.
Source: Money Saving Expert Student loans mythbusting
Who bears the cost of loans that haven’t been paid back?
At present student loans are not a cost to government or taxpayer – they come from government-guaranteed bonds. Past debts are being sold off to the private sector (at a discount). This means that students who took out loans before the 2012-13 academic year are likely to have to make repayments to private lenders who have bought contracts from the Student Loans Company. These lenders are not, however, allowed to change the terms of the loans after they have purchased them.
Graduates who earn enough to pay off their loans in full will, arguably, end up paying twice as their taxes will also have to bear the cost for those graduates who haven’t paid off their loans.
Sources: Government website, Prime Minister launches major review of post-18 education, Independent (2017) Government begins plans to sell off billions of pounds worth of student debt to private companies, 6 February, Department for Education (2018), Prime Minister launches major review of post-18 education, 19 February
How do tuition fees in England compare with other countries?
Fees in the US are high in some institutions, but are often reduced through scholarships and bursaries. The full-cost English tuition fees may well be the highest in the world. Many countries, and even some US state universities, have moved towards free university education – these include South Africa, Germany and New Zealand. Most European countries charge only nominal rather than full cost fees. Scotland and Northern Ireland have lower tuition fees, while in Wales tuition fees are capped at £9k. All three countries provide maintenance grants.
Source: The Guardian (2015), England has highest university tuition fees in industrialised world, survey finds, 24 November
What is the impact of the current funding arrangements on universities?
Between 2004-5 and 2013-14, the total income of the UK higher education sector rose from £18bn to £30.7bn, largely as a result of the introduction of tuition fees. However, removing the cap on student numbers has created financial difficulties for some universities (see above).
Source: Universities UK (2015), Patterns and trends in UK higher education
How are PhD students funded?
The seven UK research councils (now all part of UK Research and Innovation) all provide studentships for PhD students. Typically the studentship will cover fees of up to £4,260 and living costs of £14,777. The studentship may also include extra money for travel, training, placements and public engagement, depending on the nature of the PhD.
Universities need to bid to the research councils for the funding for studentships, setting out the aims and objectives of the research they want students to pursue. Once a university has received the money, it can allocate the studentships to prospective PhD students.
Some universities pool resources and expertise in doctoral training partnerships (DTPs), which train PhD studentships across all areas of a Research Council’s subject remit, or in centres for doctoral training (CDTs), which recruit PhD students to build up research expertise in target areas.
To be considered for a studentship, students need first to be accepted at a university to do a PhD, and then apply for the funding from the university. Because there is a lot of competition for studentships, many students will have to apply elsewhere for funding. Several universities offer their own scholarships, based on merit or financial need. Some universities offer international scholarships for students from overseas.
The Leverhulme Trust and the Wellcome Trust also offer scholarships for PhD students in some subject areas.
Students not in receipt of a scholarship are entitled to apply for loans of up to £25k a year from Student Finance England. When the graduate starts earning a salary, they will repay their loan at 6% of their salary over £21k.
What are the entry requirements for English universities?
Applicants usually apply to university through a central body called the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. They can apply for up to five different courses at up to five different universities. Most, but not all, students apply through Ucas before they have taken their examinations (in the UK, these are usually A-levels). Once students have received their offers, they then make one of their choices “firm” and another one (usually with a lower offer) “provisional”. When the student receives their examination results, the universities will confirm the place or reject the student if they haven’t obtained the required grades.
While some universities require particular A-level grades (such as AAB) for entry, others use the tariff points system. A university might ask a student for 120 points, for example. These map on to particular grades in different examinations – so a B at A-level is worth 40 points, while a distinction in a BTEC National Award is worth 48 points. Most universities also accept the International Baccalaureate qualification.
Source: The Complete University Guide, Applying to a British university
What other options are there for studying for a degree?
Degree apprenticeships, launched in 2015, combine full-time work and part-time study. They are offered as a partnership between universities and employers, and typically last five-to-six years. The apprentice will usually work the equivalent of four days a week for their employer, and will be paid a salary. The apprentice will spend the remaining time (either on day release, or for blocks of weeks at a time) studying at the university. Tuition fees are paid for by the employer, so apprentices will avoid ending up with a large debt when they have completed their degree.
Typically degree apprenticeships are offered in vocational subjects such as nursing or engineering. Currently, there are only 1,000 degree apprentices studying in England, and competition for places is fierce.
Approximately 30 universities are currently offering degree apprenticeships. Most of these are new universities, such as Anglia Ruskin, Coventry and Liverpool John Moores, though a few older universities, such as Lancaster and Exeter, are also offering them. Most are offering only one or two degree apprenticeships, though Anglia Ruskin is offering five. A full list is available at the Scholarship Hub (see sources).
It’s also possible to study for a degree at a further education (FE) college. Traditionally, FE colleges were for students studying A-levels or vocational courses such as BTEC, but now many of them offer degree courses, usually more cheaply than universities. The courses themselves are validated by a local university. Degree courses run by FE colleges tend to attract older students, often studying part-time.
The government has said it would like to see more universities offering two-year degrees. These would be allowed to charge more than £9,250 a year, but the overall cost would be lower.
Sources: BBC (2018), Two-year degree plan to cut cost of tuition fees, 18 November, Prospects, Degree Apprenticeships, Which University (2012), Further education college versus university: how do degree studies differ? 14 August, The Scholarship Hub (2018), Universities offering degree apprenticeships, 14 September
What are MOOCS – and how do they affect traditional teaching and learning?
MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. MOOCS, which were first introduced in 2006, are free courses offered over the internet by universities and other providers, and usually lasting a few weeks. They are open to an unlimited number of students – there are no entry requirements, and MOOCS don’t lead to a qualification. The Open University’s FutureLearn platform offers free course content from a number of UK universities.
Students are supplied with online videos and audio files of lectures and with reading materials. They can also take part in online forum discussions with other students.
There has been some concern that the availability of MOOCS would undermine traditional university courses, but so far the numbers of full-time students entering university has remained buoyant.
Source: Which University (2016), Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) explained, 15 November
Why have numbers of part-time students declined?
Although the removal of the cap on student numbers has led to an increase in the number of full-time students, the number of part-time undergraduate students in England has dropped, falling from 243,355 in 2010-11 to 167,670 in 2015-16. The decline is attributable to a rise in part-time fees. As with full-time students, the cost of fees tripled. The majority of part-time students, however, do not qualify for loans, and many simply can’t afford to pay the fees. The Open University, which delivers only part-time distance learning, has been hit particularly hard, with numbers falling by 30% between 2010-11 and 2015-16.
Sources: The Guardian (2017), Part-time student numbers collapse by 56% in five years, 2 May, HESA (2017), Higher education student enrolments and qualifications obtained at higher education providers in the United Kingdom 2015/16, House of Commons Library (2018), Briefing Paper: part-time undergraduate students in England, 26 February
What are the problems with the way universities are staffed?
The extensive use of short-term, insecure contracts makes an academic career less attractive to many able graduates, who prefer to enter jobs that are more secure and have better prospects. Students suffer too because they are frequently taught either by PhD students or by staff on the bottom rung of the academic ladder, who may be doing other jobs to top up their poorly paid university work, and who may have to leave at the end of one year to take up a short-term contract at another university.
The road to becoming a university lecturer is a long one: typically academics will do a degree, followed by a Master’s and PhD and then short contract as a post-doctorate researcher. This puts most in their late 20s before they can seek permanent jobs. In fact, permanent jobs in academia are few-and-far between: the UCU, using HESA data from 2013/14, estimates that at least 54% of all academic staff teaching in universities are on an insecure contract. Of these, 69,415 academic staff are on fixed-term contracts and 75,040 on atypical contracts (ie not standard employment contracts). UCU believes that this number is an underestimate, because the vagueness of the term “atypical contract” means that many universities may not be including hourly-paid or casual staff in the numbers.
Fixed-term contracts typically last for either a year or nine months. They have become the norm for early career academics – those who have recently finished a PhD but have yet to secure a permanent post. About three-quarters of teaching assistants and research assistants are on such contracts. This makes their position highly precarious: staff on these contracts spend much of their time looking for the next contract, making it hard to settle and buy a house or start a family, for example.
The use of short-term contracts can be particularly disadvantageous for women, because they are more likely to need time off to raise children. This inequality is reflected further up the academic ladder: only 24% of UK professors are women.
Other staff are on permanent contracts but paid by the hour. A Freedom of Information request by the University and College Union (UCU) found that just over half of the universities that responded used zero hour contracts. The position of these staff, too, is precarious. In the words of a 2016 University and College Union (UCU) report: “These staff are often no less precarious because they are only paid for the work they do and many of them have variable-hour or zero-hours contracts. Work can shrink or diminish or even disappear entirely and with it goes their income.”
About 38,000 staff are on teaching-only contracts, which are paid by the hour and for a fixed term.
Relentless pressure on academics to publish, combined with the stress of precarious employment, is not only bad for the mental health of staff. The consequence is that many talented people will shun an academic career, weakening the UK’s capabilities in scientific research. Many may be put off by the debt incurred in taking both an undergraduate degree and PhD. Furthermore, stressed, overworked academics on short-term contracts at the beginning of their career are not going to deliver the best quality teaching to undergraduate students. At a time when a university education is more expensive than it has ever been, students are being short-served.
Sources: University and College Union (2016), Precarious Work in Higher Education: A Snapshot of Insecure Contracts and Institutional Attitudes, HESA (2017), Staff at higher education providers in the United Kingdom 2015/16, 19 January
What proportion of university staff are in admin or support roles?
In 2015, Times Higher Education carried out an analysis of data from the Higher Education Statistical Agency, which showed that, out of 157 institutions in the UK, in 111, the majority of staff were in support roles. In 27 institutions, they made up 60% or more of staff. The highest proportion, at London Business School, was 85%, while among larger institutions, the highest was at the University of Bradford, with 63%.
A March 2018 article in Times Higher Education showed that the cost of employing staff in central administrative and management roles, including vice-chancellors, in universities had risen almost 7% in a year,. By contrast, spending on staff in academic departments was up 5.4 per cent.
Source: Times Higher Education (2015), Academics in the minority at more than two-thirds of UK universities, 3 September, Times Higher Education (2018), Admin and management staff costs rising the fastest, suggest data, 12 March
How do academic salaries work?
Academic salaries are partly determined through national negotiations, but individual institutions have some flexibility in the way they implement the pay scales.
Staff are employed on a system of grades from 2-10 that map onto a nationally-agreed pay spine, ranging from spine point 2 to spine point 51 for staff below professorial grades. In 2017-18, the salaries on the spine ranged from £15,417, the lowest, to £60,401, the highest.
The professorial salary scale ranges from 52 to 71 on the pay spine, starting at £63,464 and rising to
to £111k or more at the top end, though this varies between institutions.
Vice-chancellors’ salaries are set by each university’s council or governing body. A Times Higher Education survey of vice-chancellors’ pay in 2016-17 found that the average remuneration was £268,103 in salary, bonuses and benefits. Compared with leaders of other public sector bodies, this isn’t particularly high, THE found.
How do academic pensions work?
Academics in the post-1992 universities are enrolled in the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, where the amount of pension is based on the employee’s final salary – or the best three consecutive years in the last 10 years – at retirement.
Academics in the older universities, however, are enrolled in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), a defined benefit pension scheme where benefits are based on each year’s salary throughout the period of membership. Members accrue a pension of 1/75 of their salary and a cash lump of 3/75 for each year of service. At the end of each year, benefits for that year are calculated and added to previous years. This is then revalued every year in line with standard pension increases. In 2017, Universities UK proposed changing the terms of USS so that it becomes a defined contribution scheme.
The proposed changes mean that instead of the size of the pension being fixed by a pre-determined formula (1/75 of salary and so on), it will vary according to the proceeds of the pension fund at the time of retirement and the market rate for the purchase of annuities. Essentially the financial risk moves from the employers (the universities) to the employees. This is why many academics went on strike in 2017 and 2018. Because the post-1992 universities have a pension scheme based on final salary, which is less likely to fluctuate according to the vagaries of the market, staff jobs in these universities will arguably become more attractive to academics.
Sources: Times Higher Education (2017), The four ages of UK university governance, 23 March, Wonkhe (2018), A beginner’s guide to the USS dispute, 5 March, University and College Union USS and TPS at a glance, University and College Union (2018), Key Member Updates, 23 November
What is the role of unions in higher education?
The principal union representing academic staff in universities in England is the University and College Union (UCU). It was formed in 2006 from the merger of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE). It has approximately 104,000 members.
Why is academic freedom important?
Academic freedom – the freedom of academics to pursue ideas and knowledge that may be unfashionable or that may threaten the status quota – has long been regarded as a sacred principle of UK academic life.
The 1988 Education Reform Act refers to it as the right “to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or the privileges they may have at their institution.” The 1986 Education Act requires universities to set up and follow a code of practice relating to free speech.
More recently, the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) gave the new regulator, the Office for Students, the duty to protect academic freedom, including the freedom of institutions:
- to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed,
- to determine the criteria for the selection, appointment and dismissal of academic staff and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
- to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases.
There are concerns, however, about potential threats to academic freedom. One of these is the Prevent duty, enshrined in the Counter-terrorism and Security Act (2015), which states that universities should “have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism.” The same Act insists that in implementing this duty, institutions should have “particular regard to the duty to ensure freedom of speech” and “particular regard to the importance of academic freedom”. In other words, universities are required both to guard against extremism and to ensure freedom of speech. The legislation is vague, however, making it difficult to know where the correct balance lies.
Some academics fear that the government’s use of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and, more recently, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) as a basis for distributing funds to universities poses a further threat to academic freedom. The mechanism of REF nudges academics towards carrying out research that is likely to be published in particular prestigious journals, rather than research that is worthwhile in its own right. They might be deterred, for example, from carrying out research on inter-disciplinary boundaries, because it is less likely to be published in traditional high-ranking journals. Similarly, the TEF (which is measured partly through student satisfaction scores) encourages institutions and academics to prioritise pleasing students through easier course content and higher grades rather than to focus on difficult and challenging ideas.
In 2017, Chris Heaton-Harris MP sent a letter to all vice-chancellors requesting a list of lectures on European affairs and Brexit at their universities, along with copies of the relevant teaching materials. This was widely read as an attempt to intimidate universities into not airing their concerns about Brexit. It was crude and unsuccessful, but it demonstrates the need for vigilance.
Sources: Government website, Higher Education and Research Act 2017, London School of Economics (2016), Freedom of speech and academic freedom: implementing the Prevent duty and upholding the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech, Times Higher Education (2016) Stop, look, listen: the university’s role in counterterrorism, 14 January, LSE blogs (2012) The REF will strangle our vibrant academic community: it will alter morale, academic valuation of our work, and the way in which we do it, Huffington Post (2017) Universities Minister Must Stand Up For Academic Freedom Now Under Threat From Government Whip, 10 November, The Guardian (2017) The Tef won’t improve teaching – universities will just play the game, 22 June, University and College Union (2017), Academic Freedom in the U.K.: Legal and Normative Protection in a Comparative Context, 7 May
Where else can I find information on higher education in England?