What is a University in the UK?

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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

Many of the articles and tips on the career development site refer to job seeking experiences in UK universities. But what is a ‘University'? This article will clarify the structure of the UK Higher Education system and tell you about the different sorts of institution that call themselves ‘universities' in the UK.

A History Lesson

Universities in the UK have an incredible long history. Although some institutions on continental Europe are older, would you believe that Oxford University, the UK's oldest high education institution, has been going for about 850 years? Cambridge was founded soon after, and in Scotland St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh have all been teaching students for half a millennia each. Together these institutions form the old guard of the UK's university system.

There was then a lull in university foundation until the 19th century when the University of London was created, along with what are known in the UK as the ‘red brick' universities. These are city-based institutions mostly in old industrial cities. Examples are the Universities of Sheffield and Birmingham.

In the mid- 20th century, a government report entitled the Robbins Report recommended that more universities should be built. These were called ‘new universities' at the time, and are now sometimes referred to as ‘plate glass' universities. They were often on campuses outside towns and cities, with plenty of room for expansion. Examples of this group are the University of Warwick and the University of East Anglia.

The final radical shake-up of Higher Education was in 1992 when a whole new group of institutions were given the name ‘university'. These post-1992 universities are former polytechnics or colleges of higher education. Many of the UK's larger towns and cities now have more than one university, an older institution and the former polytechnic, now also referred to as a university. An example would be in Oxford, where the old university is still ‘Oxford University' and the post-1992 institution is ‘Oxford Brookes University' having formerly been known as ‘Oxford Polytechnic'. Other post-1992 universities used to be known as ‘HE colleges' and are now ‘university colleges'.

Some colleges offer both higher and further education courses. These are not considered ‘universities' and usually they offer more vocational type courses rather than the traditional academic subjects.

What do these differences mean for the jobseeker?

Teaching versus research

If you are applying for an academic position at one of these universities, you need to know whether they will be more interested in your teaching or research qualifications. This really does depend on the job for which you are applying, but as a general rule post-1992 universities focus more on teaching while older universities are more interested in your research history.

You may also hear the term ‘Russell Group' being used. This is a group of twenty universities with the best research reputation in the country and who receive a large proportion of the government's research funding. The Russell Group is made up of: Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Imperial College, London, King's College London, University College, London, Leeds, Liverpool, LSE, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Queen's University, Belfast, Oxford, Sheffield, Southampton and Warwick. Getting a job or becoming a student at one of these institutions is very competitive indeed.

The term ‘golden triangle' refers to the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and those in London. These institutions are also strongly research-focussed.

Quality of institution

Many people argue that, as a rule, the older the university, the better its standards. They believe this is especially true for the post-1992 universities which often require considerably lower grades for its students. However, some of the former polytechnics are working very hard to boost their international academic reputation by attracting the brightest scholars from around the world. They are also trying to encourage their staff to develop strong research profiles in order to compete with the older institutions. Another example to buck this trend is the University of Warwick, merely 40 years old but competing with much older institutions right at the top of most league tables.

League tables are useful for applicants and students in finding out the calibre of the institution to which they are applying. There are several different sorts of league table published each year, for example the Good University Guide: http://www.thegooduniversityguide.org.uk

It measures all sorts of criteria such as student satisfaction, research assessment, entry criteria, student-staff ratio, academic services spend, facilities spend, percentage of students getting a good honours degree, career prospects of students and completion rate. Their website also allows you to look at profiles of the institutions and the cities they are based in, which can be a useful addition to studying the university's own website. Be careful though; an institution's reputation can vary dramatically depending on which department you are interested in: a place strong in history might not attract the best physicists for example.

Another obvious criterion for judging UK university departments is their score in the Research Assessment Exercise of 2001. However, the results of a new exercise are currently being calculated and will be released imminently. 

Needless to say the results of this exercise have been very controversial and many academics do not believe them to be an accurate reflection of their department's calibre. As with all measures of quality, use your own judgement when employing them.

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