Guide to Graduate Study in the UK

The UK University system

You have most likely heard of Oxford, Cambridge, and some of the famous London universities. The UK, however, boasts over 140 institutions of higher education that offer programs at the masters or doctoral level.  These institutions are sometimes grouped in the following categories:

  • “Ancient” (established over 150 years ago) – These include Oxford (1096); Cambridge (1209); Edinburgh (1583); London (1826); Durham (1832). Within the London university system are several colleges or schools that can be thought of as separate universities, such as King’s College, University College London, the School of Oriental and African Studies, and the London School of Economics.
  • “Civic” (established in the late 1800’s in large cities, mainly built by industrialists) – These include Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow, and others. Later (1900-1960) the “red bricks” came along, including Leicester, Nottingham, and Southampton, and so on.
  • “1960’s” ("plateglass") – Bath, Lancaster, Surrey, Warwick, Bradford, to name a few. Some of these had earlier beginnings as institutions before being named universities.
  • “New” – These are institutions given university status since 1992, although they began as local technical education institutes; known as “polytechnics,” these include Portsmouth, Hertfordshire, Luton, etc.

Universities are grouped in other ways as well. In 1994, a self-selected coalition of 24 prestigious public research universities called the Russell Group was formed to represent its interests to government.  The Russell Group universities have a reputation for academic and research excellence, selectivity in admissions, substantial links to the business and public sectors.

Choosing a university

There are many factors to take into consideration when deciding where to pursue graduate study in the UK – location, academic reputation, job opportunities, resources, social life, and so on.  Choosing a university for graduate study is, however, different from choosing a college. High school students contemplating college are often unsure what they intend to pursue as a major, and so are wise to choose a school with a strong reputation in many subject areas. By the time you are pursuing graduate school, you should know your intended subject focus. Therefore, it is critical to find an institution that is strong in the area you wish to pursue.

Assessing subject strength

Research within subject areas (also known as “units of assessment”) at British universities has been assessed and rated periodically since 1986. Formerly known as the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), the new system is called the Research Excellence Framework (REF).  The research subject area is given a rating by a subject specialist peer review panel; the ratings are then  are used to inform the allocation of quality weighted research funding (QR) that each higher education institution will receive from their national funding council. Ratings now range from 4* to 1*:

  • 4* - World-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigor
  • 3* -  Internationally  excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigor but which falls short of the

         highest standards of excellence.

  • 2* -  Recognized internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigor
  • 1*  - Recognized nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigor
  • Unclassified - Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognized work, or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.

The most recent ratings were published in December 2014. You can peruse the RAF results by unit of assessment here.  

To see a list of universities ranked within subject area, consult the Research Excellence Framework 2014: Institutions Ranked by Subject, produced by Times Higher Education.

Assessing universities

Even if you have determined that a particular subject area within a target university is strong, you still may wish to know how the university fares overall within the rankings. Also based on the Research Excellence Framework, the Times Higher Ed publishes an Overall Ranking of Institutions.  You may also wish to consult the QS Top Universities worldwide university ranking website, where you can compare the ranking of a British university in a particular subject area with that of US universities or others around the world. Additional sources for information about overall rankings and within subject areas are The Times Good University Guide, The Guardian University Guide, and The Complete University Guide.

Beyond the rankings

Ratings and rankings, however, can only tell you part of the story. To learn whether a university department will be a good fit for your graduate study interests, you should spend some time reading the list of course offerings; reviewing faculty profiles; learning about research and work at centers or labs associated with the department; and asking faculty here at Mount Holyoke what they know about the institution. To learn about the university more comprehensively, you can consult the “prospectus.” This document or booklet contains not only logistical information such as how to apply and where you might find housing, but also information about social life and other matters of interest. If you type “prospectus” into the search window of the university website, you will find it in pdf form. Many student unions publish an “alternative prospectus,” which will offer a different perspective than the one the university publishes.  If you have questions you can’t find the answers to, don’t hesitate to contact the international student officer at the university. For more information on graduate study in general, read the CDC graduate school advising webpages.

Finding a program

Let’s say you want to know where in the UK you might be able to get a master’s degree in philosophy. The best place to begin your search is at the British Council Education UK website, where you will find a database you can easily filter by degree (or “qualification”) level and subject.  Once you enter your program type and subject, you will see a list of universities and the kinds of programs they offer at that level in that subject. The British Council website offers a great deal of other useful information. Because there are differences between the British system and the American system in what different degrees are called, the length of time it takes to get them, and academic qualifications need to apply, it is important to educate yourself. For instance, a great many master's programs in the UK are one calendar year (three terms) in duration instead of two years long. PhD programs are generally shorter than in the U.S. Begin by learning about courses and qualifications, and follow the links to learn more.  (Note that when you click on some links, you will land at a commercial website called Prospects. This website offers useful information about careers and graduate school in the UK.)

Funding graduate study in the UK

Many British universities offer funding schemes within departments or the university itself. Search the websites for information on funding; often you will find that applying for funding is included in the application itself, but sometimes you must apply separately. Do this research early! If you wait until after are accepted, it is usually too late. The British Council website lists numerous scholarships and bursaries they administer, as well as others offered by governments, charities, and other organizations.  Applicants with exceptional academic records and other distinguishing qualities may also wish to apply for a national fellowship through Mount Holyoke. National fellowships that support study in the UK include:

Students or alumnae who wish to apply for any of these scholarships should first thoroughly read the webpage to which links are provided above, then complete an appointment request form to meet with the National Fellowships Advisor. Application processes usually begin in the spring before the fall that the application is due, so act early!