"Uni" is the British slang abbreviation for 'university', as in "She's off to Uni in September".
What You Do And How Much It Costs
British students doing an undergraduate degree will spend three or four years (Four years is standard in Scotland, and some degrees add an extra year of professional placements and workplace training) and often come out with a BA (Bachelor of Arts), BEng (Bachelor of Engineering), LLB (Legum Baccalaureus
- Bachelor of Laws) or BSc (Bachelor of Science, not Bronze Swimming Certificate
) (and, very rarely, BEd (Bachelor of Education, but those are an unpopular and rapidly vanishing route into teaching). There are five levels of degree pass:
- First. As you can probably guess, this is the highest mark you can usually get, though there are some variations such as "First with Merit" for people that get exceptionally high results. Americans should think 4.0. GPA or something very, very close. Especially prestigious in the Law, which has the lowest proportion of students achieving firsts.
- Upper Second or 2:1 ("Two-One"). Needed for the bigger graduate schemes, and most Master's level qualifications. For people who actually care about the course they're doing, this is at the least what you want to aim for. Americans should think "3.5" or something like that.
- Lower Second or 2:2 ("Two-Two", often called a Desmond, from Desmond Tutu). AKA a "Drinker's First". If you didn't really put much effort into your course, this is about as good as you can hope for. If you did try your hardest though, it's a soul-crushing affirmation that you weren't really as good as you thought you were. Roughly equivalent to a 3.0 or a 2.5, depending.
- Third. AKA a "Drinker's Degree". In essence, you've just wasted three years and about fifteen grand. Unless you got it from one of the Oxbridge universities, in which case it's definitely not an ideal result, but still workable (just ask Carol Vorderman). 2.5, ish.
- Pass. AKA 'Ordinary Degree' (as opposed to the 'Honours Degree' you were aiming for). Usually means that something went very badly wrong indeed. Means you have to write it as just BSc instead of BSc Hons. I'm not bitter or anything. 2.0.
There is also:
- Undergraduate Diploma (UGDip) ... also known as 'Get Off My Course!' for those who fail to complete. These days it often means you ran out of money. We're not used to paying for it yet in the UK.
For most universities small amounts of marks are awarded for each unit a student sits (which are usually possible to re-sit), and the best combination of these (from second and third year) is selected in order to determine your result. This is supposedly to prevent one bad result in a final year unit from completely torpedoing your degree, although some more cynical types have suggested it's part of the "grade inflation" culture (more on that later). You can resit any year if you want to better your result or if you failed more than half of your units, but since the student loan people will not fund any whole-year resits except for in the most exceptional circumstances (basically, a serious illness or injury during the course of the year), you have to find the money to do so yourself. Otherwise, it's bye-bye for you.
However, some universities still have a system where the results for each year are not carried on to your final result, which is completely dependent on a set of exams sat at the end of third year and a project/dissertation (long essay on a topic of your choice). It is not possible to re-sit any exams. The most common way to end up with an Ordinary Degree is to complete all your final year units, but then fail miserably in the exams.
If you stay on for an extra year, you can get a Master's Degree.
Strictly the undergraduate Master's degree is a four year course, subject to adequate academic performance in year three, otherwise the student is made to leave with a Bachelors degree instead. This is a default route in most engineering disciplines and an increasing number of sciences. Award levels for this tend to vary between universities, but it's generally either just a "Pass," or a "Distinction" for those that are uber-awesome.
There is also the postgraduate masters degree, typically done over two years, for those who already have one degree. Typically covering more specialised parts of a field the student has already studied as an undergraduate.
Three more years and it's a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy, even if you do German Literature), with the right to call yourself "Doctor". This requires the publication of a novel piece of research that definitively adds to the sum of human knowledge. The traditional format is a bound volume of the size and weight of an urban telephone directory
... but slightly less readable.
You can also become an academic doctor by following a Doctoral programme involving a period of research, repeated publication in learned journals, peer review and, inevitably, a thesis. This is considered harder and more prestigious and earns the title DSc (Doctor of Sciences), DEng (Doctor of Engineering) and the like.
This isn't counting medical degrees, by the way.
To become a medical doctor requires a five year undergraduate degree, with the hands on part increasing as you go. This is technically a Bachelors Degree (BMed, BSurg), but earns the courtesy title 'Doctor' ... which is why someone who then takes a Surgeon's course (A master's degree - MSurg) suddenly becomes 'Mr' (or as appropriate) again.
They can then take academic doctorates in addition. A qualified doctor would therefore not automatically be an "MD", which indicates an additional academic doctorate (i.e. with research and a thesis) in medical science.
Note that academic appointments in the UK do not use the US associate/assistant/full professor form for positions and titles, and hence most faculty members are simply titled "Doctor". "Professor" implies that one holds a particular endowed position (e.g. "The Wealthy Donor Professorship in Tadpole Psychology") and so usually indicates a fair level of prestige.
Note also that in the UK Veterinary and Dental surgeons are NOT awarded the courtesy title 'Doctor' ...
There have been increasing complaints in the media about what are perceived as comedy courses, degrees for the sake of it (the Government is trying to get 50% of school-leavers to do a degree, a proposal that has been widely considered an attempt to keep unemployment figures artificially low, keep kids off the streets and raised fears of grade inflation).note
These include things like Surf Science (despite the fact that this degree was desperately needed in the watersport's industry as most of the degree is infact Oceanography with the surf aspect on top to allow better understanding of the issues it faces) and the oft-complained about Psychology (or, worse, Sociology - frequently lampooned in telly like Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps
) degrees. There are allegedly far more university places to take Media Studies than there are annual jobs in the media industry (The Other Wiki
claims a factor of 43) — although in actual fact it's relatively easy to spot which media degrees are useful for getting jobs in the industry and which ones aren't (basically, if it's one that's 90% theory with the option of shooting a five minute film on an old VHS camcorder in your final year, move along).
British Universities used to be free to go to. They also used to be rather hard to get into. Under the Blair Government, a fee of about £1,000 was introduced to be paid up-front, though this was quite often waived depending on how much a student's parents earned. In 2003, a £3,000 fee was introduced, to be paid after graduation. These were dubbed, accurately or not, "top-up fees". It was highly controversial, with the Labour Government widely being felt to have breached its 2001 Manifesto promise ("We will not introduce top-up fees and in fact have legislated to prevent them"). With a student loan on top of that, you're talking debts on graduation of at least £10,000 (Though realistically speaking, a student can expect to graduate with a debt of £20,000 upwards). As of 2012, tuition fees will rise to £9,000 per year, which has quite upset quite more than a few people - especially as the Liberal Democrats in the government had all personally signed pledges not to increase fees during the election campaign.
A considerable number of non-UK students come to the UK to study. They're dubbed "International Students", but are in fact in two fee categories — those from The European Union
and those who are not (the latter pay much more).
The fees are taken out of your salary when you earn more than a certain amount (c. £21,000) and it's done on a sliding scale. The threshold is usually lower if you move to live abroad but it's also easier to avoid paying.
Scotland does things differently. There, students used to pay a £2,000 flat fee. The Lib Dems and Labour claimed that they'd abolished fees, but in usual politician style they promised to abolish "up-front fees", and you still got a bill after you graduated. Then in 2007, the new SNP government allowed the Student Awards Agency to pay these ones for you as well. This only applies to Scottish people though - everyone else still has to pay the fees as they are charged, although Scots still have the student loan to contend with. There is also a pending challenge to the European Court of Human Rights by English students. Because of Scottish law, English students, despite being from the same nation as the Scots, pay more
than EU students who are not. It is alleged that this is discrimination, which it probably is.
Many Universities are referenced in groups depending on what they were founded. The oldest are the Ancient Universities which were all founded between the 12th and 16th Century. There were several founded after that, but before the 'Red Bricks' (London, Wales and Durham). Then there were six 'Red Brick' Unis founded at the turned of the twentieth century before the start of world war I. Unis chartered in the 1960s are plate glass universities and finally the new Unis were founded in the 1990s onwards from polytechnics or higher education colleges.
The Open University was established in 1968. It is a distance learning institution.
The Pecking Order
There's somewhat of a pecking order when it comes to British Universities, with people trying to get their children into the more desirable ones. Unis will compete to get as high up the published newspaper league tables as possible and acquire high teaching and research scores, and students choose 5 unis from the list based on their subject and expected grades. This scale is overall reputation, many universities punch above their weight in specific fields, usually those related to local industry (eg Sheffield - Metallurgy, Nottingham - Chemistry, Staffordshire - Ceramics). Similarly, some degrees have only local application - law in Scotland, for instance, means you will be taught Scots
law, not the English law taught at Oxbridge, and so Glasgow and Edinburgh share that particular title. Finally, Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Dublin are called the "ancient" universities, because they are the oldest
. This means that they get to appoint "Regius" Professors - "Royal" Professors - who hold appointments created by British monarchs. A Regius professor gets a nice title, and being one is a source of bragging rights among academics. Glasgow currently has the highest number of Regius chairs, at 13.
See that entry. The "old college tie" may not help you as much as it did, but it's still a good thing to have. Usual offers are A*A*A/A*AA, (Scottish students may get away with AAB or even AAC because their exams are harder) with many subjects like Maths requiring extra entrance exams.
3rd Place Universities
In most subjects, Oxford and Cambridge will sit firmly in 1st and 2nd place for most years, but many subjects have universities that regularly come third in those subjects and are usually considered especially prestigious for those subjects. Examples include Durham for Physics, Warwick for Maths, and Edinburgh for Medicine. Usually similar entry requirements to Oxbridge in these subjects.
- University of St Andrews: Founded between 1410 and 1413 by Papal decree and has a small college system like Oxbridge. A running joke in the university has to do with the fact that nobody actually knows when the University itself was founded. Just to be on the safe side, the University is sticking with 1413 - possibly to avoid celebrating the 600th anniversary early.
- The University of Dundee was formerly one of the colleges but became a university in its own right in 1967.
- University of Glasgow: Founded 1451 by Papal decree.
- University of Aberdeen: Founded 1495, again by Papal decree - originally founded as two separate colleges. This was later merged in the middle of the 19th century to form one university.
- University of Edinburgh: Founded 1582 (by Royal Charter; the Reformation having happened in 1560). The only non-Oxbridge British university to produce a Prime Minister (The Viscount Palmerston, the Earl Russell,note and Gordon Brown); all other PMs either went to Oxbridge, didn't go to uni, or were the Earl of Bute (who went to Leiden University in The Netherlands).
All of these universities have a heightened degree of ceremony and tradition, similar to Oxbridge. The standard Scottish undergraduate honours degree is four years rather than three, and you will usually come out with an MA (Hons or not) degree rather than a BA, and so on.
Other Top Universities Including the Six 'Red Brick' Universities
Universities founded later than Oxbridge
, but pretty distinguished in their own rights. The 'Red Bricks' were founded between the start of the Victorian Era and World War II
. Others were chartered in the 19th century. Some of them are:
Concrete/Plate Glass Universities
- The University of London in general considers itself on a par with Oxbridge. Considered part of the "Golden Triangle" of leading research-based institutions. It is made up of the following colleges, which for all intents and purposes, are allowed to run themselves, with the University doing no actual centralized teaching (though there are centralised student services such as libraries, intercolegiate Halls Of Residence and student union). Students apply to them separately and at the end of the degree, students can choose to either have their degree granted by the individual college "an X college, Uni of London degree", or by the whole university "a university of London degree".
- Imperial College, London (ICL) - officially the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine. Exactly What It Says on the Tin (Until very recently part of the University of London). Located in South Kensington and poorly signposted inside.
- Notable for its focus on the sciences and an almost complete lack of a humanities department (it has a business school), and the resulting skewed gender ratio. And being the sort of place where people discuss theoretical physics while drinking in the pub.
- University College, London (UCL). used to be just the University of London but was forced to change its name when it teamed up with Kings College London to form . . . the University of London (confusing, no?). Has a similar reputation as a university like Tufts does in America - "I could have gone to Oxbridge if I had wanted to, but chose to go to UCL instead." - but generally better regarded overall.
- UCL was established as Britain's first secular college by Jeremy Bentham who, delightfully, still presides over the college in stuffed, encased form.
- UCL stands for "University College, London", not "University College OF London". I've corrected this so many times just to have it edited back, so have added this footnote.
- King's College, London (KCL). Rather well-known among military historians for its War Studies department. Includes famous medical and nursing schools based at Guys and St. Thomas's Hospital. King's has a long-established rivalry with UCL, whose secularism it was established to counter.
- Queen Mary College, London (QMUL). (Also called Queen Mary and Westfield College, London) known for the ravenous ducks that live on the neighbouring canal, the GRAVEYARD situated right in the middle of campus, and for its excellent String Theory and Experimental Particle Physics research departments, with the former fast emerging as a leading international centre for the research.
- Taking short-cuts across said graveyard to get to the Library is strictly forbidden.
- Royal Holloway College, London, (RHUL). known for its vast mock-Gothic red-brick main building, often used for filming.
- London School of Economics (LSE). It also does other stuff, but mostly social sciences and humanities where it is second only to Harvard. Has a reputation for being somewhat aloof but is possessed of a very strong academic reputation. Has many famous alumni and is perhaps unique in producing Prime Ministers of every country aside from its home nation. In fiction however, it did produce James Hacker (Played for Laughs in his dealings with Oxonians Sir Humphrey and Bernard) and Jed Bartlet.
- Birkbeck College, London. Best known as the evening college (its motto is "In nocte consilium," or "Study by Night"), it is surprisingly strong in Humanities research.
- Goldsmiths College, London. One of the top arts schools in the UK and also excels in sociology.
- The London Business School.
- School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). One of those ones nobody in the UK seems to have heard of, though its reputation is actually quite impressive. Very multi-cultural.
- Royal Veterinary College (RVC). Provides not only the expected degree in veterinary medicine, but also degrees in veterinary nursing and veterinary pathology, among others.
- Durham: Along with the uni of London has a similar "college" system to the top two. It, however, doesn't come under the UCAS "one or the other" (you can apply to either of the two, but not both) rule that applies to Oxford or Cambridge; this, along with its good academic reputation, makes it a popular alternative choice for people applying to either.
- The University of Birmingham: The original 'Red Brick' University.
- Has the tallest clocktower in the world, though no one seems to be quite sure HOW tall. 
- The University of Southampton: Well known for engineering in particular with every one of its engineering departments being rated in the top 5 in the country. Also known as the home of the National Oceanography Centre. Not to be confused with the other University in Southampton, Solent rated as the worst in the country in 2008.
- The University of Bristol: a Red Brick and Birmingham's (occasional) deadly rival, for reasons no-one can remember. Founded by the parents whose child failed to get to Oxbridge to give him, and others, an Oxbridge-like education. Very well-regarded Education department.
- The University of Manchester: A red brick where the nucleus of the atom was discovered and the world's first programmable computer was invented. The largest single-campus university in the UK. Merged in 2004 with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), a large and well-respected institution in its own right.
- The University of Leeds: a red brick which was initially started as a medical school, now dominates the entire north of the city. Has a fierce rivalry with the much newer Leeds Metropolitan, a former tech college that likes to beat the old Uni at sports.
- The University of Liverpool: not the original red-brick, but the origin of the term itself with regard to the original Victoria Building. Recently caused outrage by proposing to get rid of up to nine high-profile subjects on rather suspect evidence.
- Prifysgol Aberystwyth Universitynote : the oldest university in Wales, it also pioneered the study of International Politics (the department was founded in 1919 with the object of preventing something like World War One from ever happening again - well done, everyone). Also the only uni to ever be banned from University Challenge for five years after the Aber team started a fight with Manchester.
- Cardiff University: The Largest University in Wales. Part of The Russell Group of Universities, which means it gets prestigious research projects because, err... because it's part of the Russell Group. A good mix of hands on work and academic study, and no campus: Individual campuses and halls of residence are scattered across the city, making it almost impossible to go from one to the other without passing at least one pub. This is understandably popular.
- The University of Sheffield: Last of the six 'red bricks'. Its royal charter was granted in 1905 as it was formed from three colleges.
Many of these came about as a result of the British expansion of Higher Education after World War II
advised by the Robbins Report. Mainly founded in the 1960s. They are often built of concrete.
The Former Polytechnics
- Bath. The concrete buildings of the campus contrast unfortunately with the historic city, which is mostly Georgian in style and built of honey-coloured limestone. Is now banned from building anything that can be seen from the city centre (Not a joke). The university has a good reputation for engineering, mathematics, and the sciences, and is also home to a well-regarded school of management.
- Brunel. Named after the famous engineer, although it doesn't have much of a reputation for the subject. Part of A Clockwork Orange was filmed in the lecture halls, a fact they don't broadcast at all.
- East Anglia (UEA). Notable for the "Ziggurats", rather individual student accommodation considered by some to be ugly (a victim of Zeerust) but by others to be quite attractive. Generally well known for its excellent English and Creative Writing courses, instituted by maverick lecturer Malcolm Bradbury. Matt Smith attended. Famous writer alumni include Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremaine, and Ian McEwan.
- "What's twenty quid to the bloody Midland Bank?"
- Also known for its Environmental Sciences department, containing the Climatic Research Unit that was the centre of a scandal that involved leaked emails and false accusations of doctored data regarding global warming. Highly regarded.
- Essex. Home to one of the best Politics departments in the country, its most famous member being Anthony King, regular TV commentator on British elections.
- Lancaster. Was built in the late 60s at the same time as York, giving much-needed investment to Lancaster and 'The Bay' area as its textile industry declined. Has increased its reputation by an unprecedented amount in the past 10-20 years, largely due to foreign investment in its world-renowned Management School. Is also one of the few unis to have a college system, although it is determinant of little beyond where you live on campus, what sports teams you can play for and what bar you drink at in Freshers Week. Strongest in physics, linguistics, and especially the aforementioned Management School. Andy Serkis and James May went there. Has a friendly rivalry with York, which manifests in a yearly sports competition.
- Loughborough. The place to go for sports science and its equivalents; Paula Radcliffe and Seb Coe went here, among others.
- Sussex. Near Brighton. Known for having all the social life you could possibly want, on-campus accommodation that in some cases should have been torn down thirty years ago and a large and inquisitive squirrel population.
- Warwick. Often compared in appearance to a public lavatory. It is located miles away in Coventry, and has nothing to do with Warwick. Has the highest standards for Mathematics, requiring the highest grades and students to pass an additional exam for admission.
- University of Leicester: a Midlands-based university known for its respected student media and diverse student body.
- York. Known for ducks and being hopeless at University Challenge; still has a respectable reputation. Has a friendly rivalry with Lancaster, which manifests in a yearly sports competition.
- Please note,: it is the University of York, not York University. "York University" is four years older and not British at all, but Canadian, being located in Toronto (which was called York 1793-1834, and which still has districts/suburbs called "Yorkville", "East York", and "North York").
Former polytechnic colleges (unis without the title), who all gained the status recently and changed their names accordingly to sound more desirable. Those from higher universities still look down on them, despite the fact that they tend to teach more practical things than "classics" and "history."
- Anglia Ruskin (formerly APU).
- What is amusing about this is that when you arrive in Cambridge railway station, there are big signs which say 'Home of Anglia Ruskin University', as though there wasn't another, slightly more famous university which makes up pretty much the whole of the city.
- Edinburgh Napier University. Formerly Napier Technical College and then Napier Polytechnic. Fairly well-respected these days for its engineering, science, nursing, computing, journalism, and acting courses, it also offers the only veterinary nursing course in Scotland and is among the best universities for graduate employability, but is still sneered at particularly because the much more famous University of Edinburgh is right next door.
- Lincoln. Was actually based in Hull originally, and relocated in the early nineties due to competition with the actual University of Hull, although they still maintain a secondary campus in that city. The media, criminology and architecture departments get most of the money, and hence are regarded as being among the finest in the country. Basically, if you want a degree that'll actually be useful in those areas, Lincoln should be on your shortlist. However, this has the side-effect of the university's other departments being beyond terrible.
- The university famously received a Take That from The Apprentice 2007 winner Simon Ambrose, who scorned the idea that anyone would actually need a degree to work in the media. Unfortunately for Ambrose (and fortunately for the university), he rather undid his own point by then proceeding to inadvertently perform pornographic acts with a trampoline leg on live television.
- Also given a Take That in The Inbetweeners, when Mr. Gilbert tries to blackmail Will into grassing up whoever has vandalised the roundabout: "As your UCAS referee, I will fuck your application up...It's goodbye first rate education, hello the University of Lincoln". Will goes on to trash the city in general: "I've been to Lincoln, and it's a shithole".
- According to some, their lectures are on fire.
- Liverpool John Moores. Down the road from the University of Liverpool. Recently lost both its Geography and Politics courses due to lack of interest. Obsessed with something called the 'World of Work' programme. Best known for its Chancellor, Dr Brian May.
- Manchester Metropolitan. It's literally next door to University of Manchester. Also considerably bigger (just about the largest university in Britain). Top put it in perspective, in the autumn of 2013, the closing of an entire campus of 4000 students is a MINOR move.
- Oxford Brookes. One of the oldest polytechnic institutions, an amalgam of several trade and arts colleges. The architecture department styles itself "The Oxford School of Architecture" due to Oxford University's refusal to run such a course. Located in the Headington area of Oxford, with other campuses out of town (Wheatley), the far side of Oxford (Harcourt Hill) and an outpost in Swindon.
- Sheffield Hallam. Formerly Sheffield City Polytechnic. Fourth Largest university in Britain. Split over two campuses, one in the city centre, one in the fashionable Ecclesall Road district.
- The University of Glamorgan, which has strangely ended up the third-richest in the country behind Oxbridge due to its high intake of foreign students.
- The University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN): Formerly Lancashire Polytechnic, situated in Preston. Has a sizeable population of mature and parttime students and an apparently vast advertising budget.
- University of the West of Scotland: A merger of Bell College, University of Paisley (formerly Paisley College of Technology) and Craigie College in Ayr. Also works on the Crichton campus of Glasgow University, though that's in Dumfries not Glasgow itself).
- University West of England (more commonly called UWE (you-we)) which used to be called "Bristol Polytechnic". It's actually a lot bigger than Bristol University and is currently made up of four different campuses. Frenchay (The biggest and most sprawling of the campuses where most courses are studied), Glenside (A converted hospital which is now used (quite fittingly) to teach health and social care courses), St Matthias (Known as St Matts, a collection of Gothic buildings where most of the literary and media arts are studied, it's also the prime location of the universities dramatics (Such as the UWE Drama Society), and Bower Ashton (which is on the other side of Bristol for some reason, which teaches the subjects which go under the heading "Creative Arts").
- York St. John: Actually much older than the main University of York, having been formed in the 1840s. Mostly focused on religious and historical studies until the 2000s, when a major expansion drive saw it vastly expand its range of subjects and student population, not to mention taking over a significant part of the north of the city.
Saying you went to one of these is just embarrassing, since they are near the bottom of the league tables. You might get a pass if you come from a background from which you would hardly expect to go to university at all (e.g. you come from a long line of career petty criminals and you're the first of your family to attend), but even then, it's still not anything to be proud of.
- East London (UEL). Basically, if it's in London and it isn't University of London-affiliated or Brunel, it's most likely worth avoiding.
- West London (formerly Thames Valley)
- London Metropolitan: Made the headlines in 2012 when it was banned from admitting non-EU students due to the amount of illegal immigrants that were abusing its admissions process.
Some universities in this category were not even polytechnics: Prifysgol Owain Glyndwr
(University of Wales, Wrexham) made the leap all the way from being the NEWI, Wrexham's tech college. One of its constituent colleges in Wrexham was called Yale College - all very well for a tech, but despite having had the name since long before the upstart degree mill in the USA (founded by the same Mr Yale, who emigrated) they did not think to copyright it. The American Yale College did
, however, and sued Wrexham University's arse off in a pre-emptive strike. The Welsh form Coleg Ial
is acceptible, apparently.
- P.O.G. has since earned brownie points by buying out, and keeping afloat, the perpetually struggling Wrexham Town football club, whose Racecourse Ground is slap bang next door to the former tech college campus. This earns the P.O.G. the prestige of hosting Wales' international fixtures on its premises, drawing in football fans from all over the world to pay its admission prices, eat its food, and drink in its bars. Although some locals see dark and sinister intent in the local tech (nobody in Wrexham calls it a "university" - to locals it is still NEWI, or just "the tech") buying up a prime building site just next door which currently, inconveniently, has a football club as tenants. Bets are out as to how long the football club will last.
Somewhere in the middle of all this is the Open University. Think degree via correspondence course and online stuff, although it is a LOT more demanding than most correspondence courses. More than a few people have taken up OU courses just to try and get on University Challenge
. Largest in the country in terms of number of students. Frequently features its TV programmes on BBC Learning Zone in the wee small hours on BBC Two.
Student Unions and Societies
Primarily, the job of SUs is to run the venues. Since the UK has an alcohol purchase age of 18, this means essentially helping people to lose their sobriety, inhibitions, common sense and sometimes clothes (students are major targets for sexual health campaigns). The Union Bar will attract a lot of people and often show live football games.
Student Unions often have night clubs and will bring along people to perform. These tend to be people you've either never heard of or are long past their prime. Chesney Hawkes ("I Am The One And Only") is rather popular on the UK student circuit, along with Aussie soap actors and people from Big Brother
. There are often theme nights. Foam parties and "School Disco" (think an entire collective of female students - and male ones as well - dressing up as Britney Spears in "Baby One More Time"
and you're heading in very much the right direction) are common as well. Strippers, however, are right out due to Student Unions having what are called "Safe and Comfortable" policies.
However, that's not all Student Unions do. They do student newspapers (where many a UK journo will start out), radio stations and even "TV stations". They provide employment for students, be it in the bars or food places, or as counsellors.
Most notable, however, is their political side. SUs will take part in campaigns on issues of the day that affect students. This has been student fees for the last few years, but also anti-racism, sexual health and sexual violence. Anti-racism brings us onto the "no-platform policy". The National Union of Student (NUS) is the collective group to which nearly all unions belong and has a policy prohibiting far-right groups from coming on campus. Being President of the NUS is a good step to becoming a senior politician, BTW.
- It's worth noting that the definition of 'Far-Right' can be very flexible, and not in a good way. Non-white racists tend to have a fairly easy time of it.
- Student Unions have a bad record for standing up for their members - this is slowly improving in places, but those involved in SU politics have all too often been found working towards their own future politcal career rather than campaigning on issues that bear directly on students.
- The elections often turn into something of a circus, with joke candidates outnumbering real ones, low turnouts unless there's a high-profile local or national issue affecting students (and sometimes even then - of course the SU's power to influence such matters tends to be limited) and the threat of re-opening nominations if enough people vote for the "re-open nominations" ballot option. "RON" usually has its own campaign, which sometimes personifies the concept as a real or fictional person, a real or fictional animal or a cuddly toy.
To ensure minority representation, Student Unions have minority committees and convenors. To be part of these, you merely have to "self-define" as a member of the minority groups. These include Black Students (everyone who's not white), Women, Students With Disabilities and the rather reminiscent of a sandwich LGBT- Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans* (transsexual/transgender).
The heady days of The Sixties
, with sit-ins and so on, are long gone though. Or, rather, they were for a long time, until the Lib Dems went back on a manifesto commitment to oppose increases in tuition fees, which lead to a number of occupations around the country.
As well as the Student Unions, and usually associated with them to some extent, there are quite a number of student societies. You have the tabletop games groups, of course, although they're less nerdy than fiction makes them out to be. Many of the more "recreational" societies are not fanatically dedicated to their theme, being more a social club for like-minded people.
Sports teams are common, along with cheerleaders.
- Cheerleaders are very rare in the UK. They exist, but not in the same way as in the US.
- With some very limited exceptions, uni sports in Britain get attendances of effectively zero - maybe the players' girlfriends if they're lucky, plus possibly a reporter from the uni paper who wants to be a real sports reporter later in life. This doesn't stop the participants being very serious about them, but no-one else cares; there aren't any scholarships, there's no money, and the real prospects usually turn professional at 16/17 and never go to uni in the first place. The only exceptions are Oxbridge and Loughborough; Oxbridge takes some traditionally upper-class sports (Rugby Union and cricket) very seriously indeed, and the Boat Race is the only event comparable to US Division I football/basketball, complete with recruitment and payment scandals. Loughborough is more about first-class physical training for individual-sports athletes, especially track-and-field.
Various national groups have their own societies. The various religions do as well (and will have a common Worship Area as well), such as the many Christian Unions, some of which entered the media recently due to rules prohibiting non-Christians from joining the Committee. These CU groups tend to be evangelical in thinking, which inevitably brings them into conflict with the (very) liberal doctrines of the NUS.
Political societies are very common. Many of these are the peace groups i.e. CND and Stop The War (there was a recent case of a Student Union barring The UK Armed Forces
from recruiting on campus). Amnesty makes a showing too - left/liberal causes are by far the most common, their equivalents at the 'other end' of the political spectrum generally being banned by NUS policy.
The major political parties all have student wings and representation on most campuses. These students will frequently end up shoving leaflets through doors come election time or turning up in the various publicity stunts that they do (i.e. dressing up as Spock for John Redwood - long story). The societies will have guest speakers and the attendant opponents.
Then there are the weird ones. A number of Unis have "Assassin's Guilds" (most notably Cambridge), a mass, long-running game of Killer
(imported from America).
Sororities and Fraternities are non-existent (at least officially...) and hazing is nowhere near to the scale of the US.
Unlike Americans, British students never refer to uni as school in conversation. This is the case even when the official name of their institution or department is the School of whatever. Similarly, "college" has several meanings within the British education system but "uni in general" is rarely one of them.
Outside of Oxbridge
, the British Unis don't appear in fiction all that much. They do appear in some crime dramas and The Bill
has a fictional one. The University of Bristol appears in Starter For 10
, but isn't actually named in the book (unlike the film, which makes it obvious). Edinburgh University appears in the Rebus
series of novels occasionally. Fresh Meat
is set at the fictional Manchester Medlock University, a Fictional Counterpart
to the University of Manchester, which both the writers atttended.
- The University of East Anglia, Norwich, is the thinly-disguised venue for The History Man, a novel and a TV drama series written by UEA's most famous hack professor to date, Malcolm Bradbury. It was also the thinly-disguised "Lowlands University" in A Very Peculiar Practice, although the series was filmed at Keele and Birmingham after UEA refused to take part.
- The college formerly known as Cambridge Polytechnic is the setting for Tom Sharpe's Wilt series of novels. After expulsion from South Africa for being illegally in possession of a sense of humour, Sharpe got a job teaching history here. He wrote about his experiences in academic bureaucracy and office politics (both of which seemed to matter far more than mere teaching), fictionalising his workplace as the Fenland College of Technology, and writing himself into the character of Henry Wilt. The first of the five Wilt novels was made into a film starring Griff Rhys-Jones and Mel Smith.
- Sharpe also wrote about his own old Oxbridge college, fictionalising this in his farce Porterhouse Blue. This has since been televised.