"Uni" is the British slang abbreviation for "university", as in "She's off to Uni in September", similar to the way "college" is used in American English.
Unlike their American counterparts, 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 not one of them.
There are distinct differences between the education systems of the four Home Nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) due to the devolution of education. This mainly applies to pre-university studies, but still has notable effects here.
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 class honours. 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 Law, which has the lowest proportion of students achieving firsts. Often nicknamed a "Geoff", rhyming slang with the former England footballer Geoff Hurst.
- Upper Second class honours, usually written as 2:1 (and called a "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"). 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. Usually nicknamed a "Desmond", after Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
- Third. AKA a "Drinker's Degree". In essence, you've just wasted three years and about twenty-five grand. Unless you got it from Oxford or Cambridge, in which case it's definitely not an ideal result, but still workable (just ask Carol Vorderman or Alexander Armstrong). 2.5, ish. For nicknames, take your pick between "Thora" and "Douglas" (respectively rhyming slang with the actress Thora Hird and the politician Douglas Hurd).
- 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. 2.0. Oxford traditionally listed this as Fourth Class, but very few holders of a fourth class degree are still alive.
There is also:
- Higher National Diploma (HND), a two-year course usually only found in business-related subjects. Cruelly but predictably, the initials are said to stand for Has No Degree.
- 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.
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 or six 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, dental surgeons are NOT awarded the courtesy title 'Doctor'. The same was true for veterinary surgeons until 2015, when the country's veterinary association allowed vets to use the title, mainly to match with international practise.note
Those who attended an American university would find typical undergraduate course requirements for UK universities (at least in the 80s into the 90s) to be very different to the standard US menu that requires taking courses in a wide range of subjects with the notion that it produces a more "rounded" individual. UK universities assumed that students were "rounded" enough by the end of high school, and it was often impossible to take courses outside of the faculty your main subject (the notion of a "major" and "minor" did not exist) was part of. So a science student could take no humanities courses, and vice versa.
As an example, at one Scottish university, a degree in Computer Science required three subjects to be studied in the first year and second years (Computer Science, Mathematics and a third science course of the student's choice - it was even possible to take 1.5 courses worth of Computer Science and only need to do half a course in another science department) with the third and fourth years being entirely Computer Science, 100% of the time, unless you were taking a joint degree, in which case all first and second year courses were mandated, and third and fourth year were split between the two subjects that made up the degree.
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 (even though 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. This referred to both tuition and the provision of an annual grant for cost of living and textbooks. The grant was means-tested to some extent, so some cost did fall on the parents of students from more affluent households, but at the low income end, it was possible for students from very poor backgrounds to get through a prestigious university at no cost. 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 rose to £9,000 per year, which upset more than a few people - especially as the Liberal Democrats (who'd become the junior party in the coalition government that took office in 2010) had all personally signed pledges not to increase fees during the election campaign. At present (March 2021), the maximum fee than an institution may charge (which most do) stands at £9,250 per year.
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 applied to Scottish people though - everyone else still had to pay the fees as they are charged, although Scots still have the student loan to contend with. There was a challenge in the European Court of Human Rights by English students. Because of Scottish law, English students (and Welsh and Northern Irish students), despite all being from the same nation as the Scots, paid more than EU students who are not. It was alleged that this is discrimination, which it probably isbut the scheme was upheld in 2013. Since 2017, a change in Scottish law now puts students from the rest of the UK on the same footing as native Scots.
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 definitely 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 school system is different) 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 in those areas. Examples include Manchester for Physics, Warwick/Imperial for Maths, and Edinburgh for Medicine. Imperial College London and UCL are perennial 3rd-placers in a larger number of subjects than any others, and occasionally beat their way into 2nd or 1st place some years. Usually similar entry requirements to Oxbridge in these subjects.
Top Scottish Unis:
Despite having less than one tenth the population of England, Scotland has twice as many "ancient universities", albeit none as "ancient" as Oxford or Cambridge. These (or at least St Andrews and Edinburgh) are often considered to be in the "3rd-ranked" category UK-wide, just below Oxbridge in educational quality and prestige.
- University of St Andrews: Officially founded in 1413 by Papal decree, although there is evidence of teaching as early as 1410. It has a small college system like Oxbridge. A Running Joke in the university is 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. Either way, it's the oldest university in the English-speaking world after Oxbridge, and the oldest in Scotland.note
- 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. Sometimes known as the "Russell Group" universities. Some of them are:
- The University of London in general considers itself on par with Oxbridge, with which it forms the unofficial "Golden Triangle" of leading research institutions. It's modelled on Oxbridge, being composed of largely self-run colleges which students apply to separately, with the University doing no actual centralised teaching (though there are shared student services such as libraries, intercollegiate Halls Of Residence and the student union). But in contrast to Oxbridge, where the individual colleges have no authority to award degrees, students can choose to either have their degree granted by the individual college or by the whole university. As such it's more a family of universities, and encompasses everything from UCL (ranked 10-20 globally) to Royal Holloway (~100-300+ globally) — if someone chooses to just say they went to the "University of London", it means they probably didn't go to the former.
- Imperial College, London officially the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine. 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. While most London unis clamour to be included as part of the federal University of London or suffer the stigma of being considered unworthy, Imperial decided to actually secede from the University of London and become independent for its centenary in 2007, which goes to show how prestigious Imperial is, since being subsumed by the University of London was cramping its style.
- University College, London (UCL) used to be just the University of London but was forced to change its name when it teamed up with King's College London to form . . . the University of London (confusing, no?). Has a similar reputation as a university like Tufts does in America everyone there usually insists that "I could have gone to Oxbridge, I just didn't want to" but is 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.
- Though it should be noted that the stuffed Bentham's head is actually a waxwork. The real stuffed head was locked away after King's College students stole it one too many times.
- The School of Slavonic & East European Studies (SSEES) has been part of UCL since 1999; before that, it had been an independent institution within the University of London.
- Ditto the Institute of Education (I of E), which merged into UCL in 2014.
- 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, where it is a running joke that the largely Oxford-dominated civil service look down on the LSE) and Jed Bartlet.
- Birkbeck College, London. Best known as the evening college (its motto is "In nocte consilium," or "Study by Night") and thus popular with mature students who have actual jobs, it is 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 that few people in the UK seem to have heard of, though its reputation is actually quite impressive. As the name suggests, its focuses on study of Asian and African languages and cultures, and, with the exception of linguistics (YMMV), it is Arts & Humanities focused. Very multi-cultural. Urban legend has it that it used to be legal to smoke pot in the bar (it wasnt, but plenty of students did so anyway).
- 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 University of London, Durham has a similar "college" system to the top two. It doesn't, however, come under the UCAS "one or the other" rule that applies to Oxbridge (meaning you can't apply to both Oxford and Cambridge at the same time). 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 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. Has now joined Durham in being notorious as the university for rich kids who couldn't get into Oxbridge.
- The University of Exeter. Has an average of seven applications for every available place. Strong links with the Met Office, which is based in Exeter.
- 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 student union has its own nightclub with spaces for three gigs to run simultaneously (and they usually do). Over the years it's played host to Gorillaz, Pulp, The Flaming Lips, Kings of Leon, Kylie Minogue, Radiohead, Nirvana... The Hall of Fame reads like a who's who of music.
- 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 (Now Leeds Beckett), a former tech college that likes to beat the old Uni at sports. Its student union claims to have the longest bar in the country, in addition to being one of Leeds's largest music venues.
- 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.
- The University of Nottingham: Includes three Nobel Laureates among its alumni. Well known for having a high female-to-male ratio among the student population as a result of the nursing students at the Queen's Medical Centre which was for a time the largest hospital in the UK.
- Prifysgol Aberystwyth Universitynote : one of the older universities in Wales (The oldest being Lampeter University which was founded in 1822), it also pioneered the study of International Politics (the department was founded in 1919 with the object of preventing something like World War I from ever happening again - well done, everyone). Known colloquially as 'Aber' (pronounced the same way as 'ABBA'). 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.
- Queen's University Belfast: The older of the two universities in Northern Ireland. Originally a college of the Royal University of Ireland until things happened. Part of the Russell Group and alma mater to the likes of Seamus Heaney and Liam Neeson. More traditionally academic than its other Northern Irish counterpart, the University of Ulster. Somewhat unsurprisingly, tends to get the majority of school leavers from Northern Ireland, especially since it decided to set its tuition fees at £6000 rather than the £9000 trend everywhere else in the UK.
- The University of Sheffield: Last of the six 'red bricks'. Its royal charter was granted in 1905 as it was formed from three colleges.
- 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, which was rated as the worst in the country in 2008.
Concrete/Plate Glass Universities
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.
- Aston. Located in Birmingham city centre, it was originally founded as the Birmingham Municipal Technical School in 1895, it was granted university status in the 1960s. Its business school has an excellent reputation. Also known for Chancellor's Lake, which is home to some truly and utterly vicious geese.
- 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 (yes, really). The university has a good reputation for engineering, mathematics, and the sciences, and is also home to a well-regarded school of management.
- Bradford. The first British uni to establish a Department of Peace Studies; it's now the world's largest university department devoted to the study of peace and conflict.
- Brunel. Located in the western suburbs of London. Named after the famous engineer, although it doesn't actually 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). Located in Norwich. 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 accusations of doctored data regarding global warming which they managed to pass off as false due to the emails being so boring nobody actually read them. Highly regarded except among those who did read the emails.
- Has a "friendly" sporting rivalry with Essex, below.
- The surrounding forest estate has been a popular filming location for Hollywood films such as Avengers: Age of Ultron.
- 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.
- Essex was at one time notorious for being a hotbed of radical left-wing student politics (think Rick from The Young Ones, but serious) - alumni of the University were at one time (allegedly) involved in numerous riots and protests - and the university prides (and sells) itself, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, on the fact that its students have a reputation for being rebellious. Of course life at the university is a little more sedate, nowadays, but it still attracts a healthy amount of lefties, both among the staff and the students.
- Has a "friendly" sporting rivalry with East Anglia, above.
- Hull. Actually falls between this category and the red brick one, having been founded in the 1920s as an external University of London college before becoming a uni in its own right in the 1950s. Its sometimes classified as a 'white tile university'. Philip Larkin used to work in the library there.
- Keele. Originally the University College of North Staffordshire, it was granted proper uni status in 1962.
- Lancaster. Was built in the late 60s at the same time as York, giving much-needed investment to Lancaster as its industries declined. Most famous for its Management School and strong business departments. Has a college system. Andy Serkis and James May went there. Has a friendly rivalry with York, which manifests in a yearly sports competition.
- Leicester. The first-ever winners of University Challenge, back in 1963. In more recent years, it's had a lot of media attention due to its work on genetic fingerprinting, space research (in partnership with the National Space Centre, which is located in Leicester) and archaeology (thanks mainly to the discovery of Richard III's remains under a car park in the city in 2012).
- Loughborough. The place to go for sports science and its equivalents; Paula Radcliffe and Seb Coe went here, among others.
- University of Stirling: The first new university to be established in Scotland in 400 years. Is known for being pretty big on sports.
- Surrey. Located in Guildford. A 1960s birth that was named University of the Year for 2016. It scores highly for student satisfaction, which could suggest that little studying takes place — but instead maybe the satisfaction is with the teaching and course. Also home to the Surrey Sports Park (2012 Olympic training centre) and BBC Surrey, as well as the AQA (publicly-despised exams board) headquarters.
- Sussex. Near Brighton. Known for having all the social life you could possibly want, (until recently) on-campus accommodation that in some cases should have been torn down thirty years ago and a large and inquisitive squirrel population.
- University of Ulster: The second of Northern Ireland's two universities. More vocationally-orientated than Queen's, and made up of four campuses (Coleraine, Belfast, Magee College, and Jordanstown) which act like English colleges in that students can apply to them separately if more than one offers the same degree... except half of them are at the opposite end of the country from each other. Technically only the original campus in Coleraine is "plate glass", being built in the 1960s. Magee College used to be an offshoot of Trinity College in Dublin (hence the "College") and became part of UU in 1969; Jordanstown (just outside Belfast) was a former polytechnic that joined in the 1980s; and the Belfast campus used to be a separate art college and joined in the 1990s (putting them in the category below). While former polytechnics have merged with ancient and red brick universities before, this is the only case in the UK where it's happened with a plate glass uni. Also charges lower fees like Queen's.
- Warwick. Often compared in appearance to a public lavatory. It is actually located miles away in Coventry, and has nothing to do with the town of Warwick. Has the highest standards for Mathematics, requiring the highest grades and students to pass an additional exam for admission. It also has a highly-respected business school.
- York. Known for ducks (due to the campus being arranged around a large lake) and being hopeless at University Challenge; still has a respectable reputation. Built using the same "CLASP" modular system as St Paul's School. Has a friendly rivalry with Lancaster, which manifests in a yearly sports competition. N.B. it is the University of York, never "York University", which is a different university located in Toronto, Canada (which was called York until 1834, and still has districts/suburbs called "Yorkville", "East York", and "North York").
The Former Polytechnics
Usually abbreviated to "Ex-Polys". Former polytechnic colleges (basically, unis in all but name) which gained uni status in the 1990s and changed their names accordingly to sound more desirable. Those from higher universities still look down on them, even though they tend to teach more practical things than "classics" and "history."
- Anglia Ruskin. Formerly Anglia Polytechnic, it was the only ex-poly to retain the word 'polytechnic' in its title after becoming a uni, although it eventually ditched that term in 2005. What is amusing about this one is that when you arrive at 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.note
- The University of Central Lancashire (UCLAn): Formerly Lancashire Polytechnic, situated in Preston. Has a sizeable population of mature and part-time students and an apparently vast advertising budget. note
- Coventry (formerly Coventry Polytechnic), or "Cov" for short. One of Britain's fastest-growing unis, and actually the fourth largest outside London; much bigger than the University of Warwick which is also in Coventry (don't ask). Actually has a campus in London which focuses on business courses.
- De Montfort. Formerly Leicester Polytechnic; named after Simon de Montfort, who was the Earl of Leicester in the 13th century and is credited with establishing England's first Parliament.
- 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.
- Glamorgan, which has strangely ended up the third-richest in the country behind Oxbridge due to its high intake of foreign students.
- Kingston (formerly Kingston Poly) - that's Kingston in south-west London, not Kingston-upon-Hull. Has a good reputation for art, design and fashion.
- Leeds Beckett. Formerly Leeds Met, and was Leeds Poly before that. Strong on sport to the point where it sponsored Rugby League's Challenge Cup for a time.
- 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 former Chancellor, Dr Brian May of Queen fame.
- Manchester Metropolitan. It's literally next door to University of Manchester. Also considerably bigger (just about the largest university in Britain). To put it in perspective, in the autumn of 2013, the closing of an entire campus with the loss of 4,000 students, was seen as a minor move.
- Middlesex University (formerly Middlesex Polytechnic). Widely regarded as the top modern university in London. Was once spread across several campuses in North London - indicative of its past as several colleges which merged to form the poly - but is now mostly based at Hendon. It counts Helen Mirren as an alumnus - she went to the New College of Speech and Drama, one of several HE institutions which were merged into the current uni.
- Nottingham Trent ("NTU" or "Notts Trent" for short). An amalgamation of several HE colleges in the Nottingham area which became Trent Polytechnic in the 1970s and a uni in the 1990s. Has "one of the best employability records of any university in England and Wales", according to the other Wiki.
- 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. Very popular with students whose brighter schoolfriends got in "down the hill", and those who want to say they went to university in Oxford without actually lying.
- Portsmouth. Formerly Portsmouth Polytechnic, one of the largest polytechnics before university status was granted. Alumni include the astronaut Tim Peake, who did a BSc in Flight Dynamics and Evaluation as a mature student while he was an Army test pilot.
- 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.
- Staffordshire. Formerly North Staffordshire Polytechnic. Ironically, "Staffordshire University" had previously been suggested as a possible name for Keele.
- University West of England (more commonly called UWE (you-we)), formerly 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").
- 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).
- York St. John: Not technically an ex-poly, having been a college of Leeds Uni before getting proper uni status in its own right in 2006. 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. Has strong ties to the Church of England; it holds its graduation ceremonies in York Minster, and its first Chancellor was the then Archbishop of York, John Sentamu.
The ones at the bottom end of the league tables which invariably fill places on their courses through Clearing, the process by which students who have failed to meet the entry requirements for the unis they applied for can shop around and take their chances at a less choosy institution (this always happens after A-level results day, for obvious reasons). Saying you went to one of these is usually embarrassing, although you might get a pass if you're the first member of your family to have gone to university or if you come from a background from which you would hardly expect to go to university at all. Most of them weren't even polytechnics before they became unis, and some of them are located in towns and cities that people wouldn't expect to have a university - probably because, prior to the 1990s, they didn't.
- Bedfordshire. The result of a merger between Luton Uni (formerly the Luton College of Higher Education) and the Bedford campus of De Montfort.
- Bolton (formerly the Bolton Institute of Higher Education). Bolton is one of those places that most British people are surprised to learn has a university.
- Derby (formerly the Derby College of Art & Technology). Has a sizeable mature student population. Owns a theatre in the city centre and has campuses in Buxton and Chesterfield, as well three in Derby itself.
- East London (UEL, formerly East London Poly). Basically, if it's in London and it isn't University of London-affiliated, Brunel or (possibly) Middlesex, it's most likely worth avoiding.
- Greenwich (formerly Thames Poly). As above.
- Huddersfield (formerly Huddersfield Poly). Huddersfield's another of those places that most people don't realise has a uni. Recent media attention has been entirely due to the fact that its Chancellor was Prince Andrew - who was forced to resign in 2019 following his car-crash of an interview on The BBC about his links to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
- Lincoln. Was originally based in Hull note but relocated in the 1990s due to competition with the actual University of Hull. The media, criminology and architecture departments get most of the money, and are in fact 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. The obvious side-effect of this is that the university's other departments are terrible, hence why it's best known as a Clearing uni.
- 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 Lincoln Uni), 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 personally 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 shit-hole".
- According to some, their lectures are on fire.
- London Metropolitan. The result of a merger between London Guildhall University (formerly the City of London Polytechnic) and the University of North London (formerly North London Polytechnic). Best known for making the headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2012, when it got banned from admitting non-EU students due to the amount of illegal immigrants that were abusing its admissions process.
- London South Bank (LSBU, formerly South Bank Poly). As per UEL and Greenwich.
- Solent. Formerly the the Southampton Institute of Higher Education, it was called Southampton Solent University but dropped the "Southampton" bit in 2018, presumably to the relief of the actual Southampton Uni with which it can no longer be confused.
- Wrexham Glyndŵr, or, as it's known in Welsh, Prifysgol Glyndŵr Wrecsam* ("PGW" for short) made the leap all the way from being the NEWI (Northeast Wales Institute), Wrexham's tech college.note Further background
- PGW has since earned brownie points by buying out, and keeping afloat, the perpetually struggling Wrexham football club, whose Racecourse Ground is slap bang next door to the former tech college campus. This earns the PGW 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 NEWInote , 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.
- NEWI, sorry, PGW, has been quietly acquiring other former tech college sites in Flintshire and Wrecsam Maelor: such as the former agricultural/horticultural college at Northop which is now its centre for zoology, "animal-based courses", ecology and biodiversity. While it boasts its commitment to green causes and sustainability, there are rumblings locally concerning its wanting to build on land being used as allotments and on ancient forest land in its property portfolio.
The Open University
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 (which the OU has won twice). Largest in the country in terms of number of students; in 2020, over 175,000 were enrolled, including about a third of new undergraduates aged under 25. It's well-remembered for monopolizing weekend TV on The BBC in the 1970s and 80s (mostly on BBC Two, and typically in late-night/early-morning slots), but later moved their TV programmes into the BBC Learning Zone in the wee small hours of BBC Two. Now that the Learning Zone is gone, OU shows can be accessed online via streaming means. Interestingly, it's also fully accredited in the US, making it one of only two British unis with this distinction. The other is the relatively obscure institution known for short as Richmond note .
The Agricultural Universities
Then there's this lot, which sort of sit in their own little world somewhere to the side of the rest of the UK's higher education institutions. The ag unis (or colleges, as they were known until about the mid 2010s) exist to provide vocational training to people who are either going to inherit farms or who are planning to do a "countryside" job like woodland management or training racehorses.
That means the students tend to be 1) considerably richer on average than students pretty much everywhere else, 2) not too bothered about what grades they come out with and 3) able to access firearms, explosives, heavy machinery and large animals pretty much on demand.
Predictably, the result of this has historically been complete drunken anarchy even by university standards.
There are two ag unis that are particularly well know. The Royal Agricultural University, located just outside Cirencester in the heart of the Cotswolds, is known for being the place for the UK's landed gentry to go when they want to learn to look after their estates, so has a reputation for being even posher than the others of this genre - society balls are frequent, and tweed is a common wardrobe choice. Harper Adams in Shropshire is larger, newer and generally seen as a bit more down to Earth, albeit no less wild and drunken. Others include Bishop Burton College, Hartpury College and the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland.
When they remember they exist, the rest of the UK's universities tend to look down on the ag unis because they're so shamelessly unacademic. Ag students, as a general rule, are too busy firing shotguns and driving tractors to care.
Students' Unions and Societies
Primarily, the job of SUs is to run the venues. Since the UK has an alcohol purchase age of 18 and the drinks in an SU bar are invariably cheaper than those served in pubs, this essentially means that SUs play a key role in helping young people (many of whom are living away from home for the first time) to lose their sobriety, inhibitions, common sense and sometimes clothes (it's not for nothing that students are major targets for sexual health campaigns). The Union Bar will attract a lot of people and often show live football games.
Students' 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 is still popular on the UK student circuit note , along with Aussie soap actors and people from Big Brother. There are often theme nights. Retro 70s/80s nights, foam parties and "School Disco" nights (think an entire collective of female students - and some 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 that Students' Unions do. They do student newspapers (where many a British journo will start out), radio stations and even "TV stations". They provide employment for students, mostly in the bars but also 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.
- There are some controversies over the "no-platform" policy usually applying only to white racists. There have been several controversies over non-white people getting platforms despite records of taking grossly misogynistic, homophobic, or religiously sectarian positions.
- Students' Unions have a bad record for standing up for their actual students - this is slowly improving in places, but those involved in SU politics have all too often been found working towards their own future political career rather than campaigning on issues that bear directly on students. Being President of the NUS, or even President on your uni's SU, is seen as a pretty good step towards becoming a senior politician (particularly in the Labour Party, given the lefty nature of student politicsnote ).
- SU elections often turn into something of a circus, with joke candidates outnumbering real ones, low turnouts due to extreme apathy on the part of most students (unless there's a high-profile local or national issue affecting students - and sometimes not even then, as the SU's power to influence such matters invariably tends to be limited) and the threat of re-opening nominations if enough people vote for the mandatory "re-open nominations" ballot option. "RON" often has its own campaign, which sometimes personifies the concept as a real or fictional person, an animal or a cuddly toy.
- Just how politically active a SU actually is can vary considerably depending on the uni in question. It may well be the case that the university divides into a small minority who get involved in SU politics and a large majority who ignore the whole business as an irrelevance, leading to the SU being unable to "achieve a quorum" (have enough people taking part in a vote for the result to actually count) on anything because nobody is interested enough, or even aware that there's a vote going on.
To ensure minority representation, SUs have minority committees and convenors. To be part of these, you merely have to "self-define" as a member of a minority group. These include Black Students (everyone who's not white), Women (even though some unis actually have more female students than male ones), Students With Disabilities and the ever-changing acronym that is currently LGBTQ note .
The heady days of The '60s, with sit-ins, marches and so on, are long gone though. Or, rather, they were for a long time, until the Liberal Democrats reneged on a manifesto commitment to oppose increases in tuition fees once they'd actually got into government note , which lead to a number of occupations around the country.
As well as the Students' 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 (except for the Dungeons & Dragons lot, who really are that nerdy). 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, although their situation is very different to the USA. For a start, cheerleaders are very rare. This isn't surprising when you consider that, with some very limited exceptions (see below), uni sports in Britain get attendances of effectively zero - maybe the players' partners if they're lucky, plus possibly a reporter from the SU 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 or 17 and so never go to uni in the first place. That said, by tradition there are never lectures, seminars or exams on a Wednesday afternoon at any British university, to provide a time for fixtures that allows all the players not to miss anything important.
The only exceptions to this are Oxbridge and Loughborough. Oxford and Cambridge take some traditionally upper-class sports (mainly Rugby Union and Cricket) very seriously indeed, with the annual fixture between the two institutions invariably being called the "Varsity Match". The exception is in rowing, where the Boat Race is the only event comparable to US Division I football/basketball, complete with recruitment and payment scandals. It's still shown on The BBC, and as a result many people who have no connection whatsoever to either university tend to have a strong allegiance one way or the other. Loughborough, meanwhile, is more about first-class physical training for individual-sport athletes, especially athletics ("track and field" to North Americans).
Various national groups have their own student 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 their Committees. These CU groups are actually a national organisation that's part of the Evangelical wing of the Church of England, which inevitably brings them into conflict with the (very) liberal doctrines of the NUS, and with Christian students from other denominations who try to join them thinking that they're ecumenical and then see the extremely sectarian statement of faith that they're required to sign up to.
Political societies are common. The mainstream political parties (Labour, Conservatives, etc) all have student wings and representation on most campuses. These students will frequently end up shoving leaflets through doors come election time or engaging in various publicity stunts. They usually have guest speakers who, depending on their profile, may attract members of an opposing student political group who will come and heckle. The other political societies are invariably of the pacifist and left-wing sort (their equivalents at the 'other end' of the political spectrum generally being banned by NUS policy). The often-acrimonious squabbling between the various hard-left groups on some campuses and at the annual NUS Conference is at times reminiscent of the various anti-Roman resistance groups in Monty Python's Life of Brian. And no, theyre not doing this ironically.
Sororities and Fraternities are next to non-existent, and hazing is nowhere near to the scale of the US. What hazing does occur is generally restricted to public-school-based drinking societies (which in any case tend not to exist outside Oxbridge and the Red Bricks) and the odd particularly loutish sports team (and not just the men's teams in terms of the latter), especially when they go 'on tour'. Whilst societal drinking is technically banned on campuses, it's hard to enforce.
Outside of Oxbridge, British unis don't tend to appear in fiction all that much.
- Fresh Meat is set at the fictional "Manchester Medlock University", a Fictional Counterpart to the University of Manchester, which both the writers atttended.
- The Inbetweeners visited Warwick Uni in the Series Three episode "The Trip to Warwick". By the time of the second movie, Will and Simon are students at (respectively) Bristol and Sheffield. Will describes himself as "the University of Bristol's least popular student".
- Mark and Jez in Peep Show have known each other since they were students at the fictional "University of Dartmouth". Mark had wanted to study ancient history but was pushed by his parents into doing business studies instead, while Jez studied nursing. When they revisit "Darty" in Series Two, Mark pretends to be a student as part of an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to seduce April.
- In Spaced, Daisy graduated from Kingston with a Third.
- The University of Bristol appears in Starter for 10, but isn't actually named in the book (unlike the film, which makes it obvious).
- Keele and Birmingham starred as "Lowlands University" in A Very Peculiar Practice (although said fictional uni was actually based on UEA).
- The "University of Watermouth" is a thinly-disguised version of the University of East Anglia (UEA) in The History Man, a novel and a TV drama series written by UEA's most famous writer-professor to date, Malcolm Bradbury. It's said that UEA's discomfort with The History Man was a major factor in its decision not to allow A Very Peculiar Practice (see above) to be filmed there.
- Edinburgh University occasionally appears in Ian Rankin's Rebus novels. It's Rankin's old university.
- The uni formerly known as the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology (CCAT) is the setting for Tom Sharpe's Wilt novels. After he was thrown out of South Africa for having a sense of humour, Sharpe got a job teaching history there. 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 "Fenland Technical College" and writing himself into the character of Henry Wilt. The first of the five Wilt books (published in 1976) was later made into a TV film starring Griff Rhys-Jones and Mel Smith. An ongoing sub-plot concerns the failed attempts at empire-building by the egotistic Principal, who dreams of it being able to re-charter as a university. These pompous dreams are always shattered by Wilt's doings. This is Hilarious in Hindsight because, after several mergers, CCAT became Anglia Polytechnic, which in 1992 become a uni, now called Anglia Ruskin. By the time of the last Wilt novel, The Wilt Inheritance (2010), "Fenland Tech" has indeed become "Fenland University".
- Sharpe also fictionalised his own old Cambridge college, Pembroke, in the farce Porterhouse Blue which was later televised.