How to choose between different university types

The university system in is one of the UK's oldest institutions. Students have a huge variety of places to study so this guide explains how to choose a university between different university types.

University models

The UK university system has evolved over hundreds of years. For this reason there is no single model for a university in the UK. They are individual and each has its own identity and purpose. They are managed according to a formal structure which controls the academic and administrative functions.

However most universities in the UK are part of a special interest group that represents their aims and values as an academic institution. The groups will follow a set of guiding principles regarding historical origins, collaboration with the regional community and types of research which allows the university to offer different courses around specialist subjects.

Up until 1992 there were around 45 universities that offered undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. The majority of courses were provided by different institutions called polytechnics. These institutions offered vocational and academic courses from certificate level up to masters level.

In 1992, Higher Education reformed in the UK. Polytechnics restructured as universities, and award their own degrees for the first time.

University funding went through a major change as well. Tuition fees introduced in 1998 supported a massive expansion in the university sector.

Main university groups

  • The Russell Group is a self-selected association of 24 public research universities. According to their website they: -

‘…have huge social, economic and cultural impacts locally, across the UK and around the globe: They produce more than two-thirds of the world-leading research produced in UK universities and support more than 260,000 jobs across the country. They inject nearly £87 billion into the national economy every year’.

The Russell Group includes the universities of Oxford and Cambridge

  • Million Plus is a coalition of 23 post-1992 universities formed 1997
  • University Alliance is a coalition of 12 "business engaged" (mostly) post-1992 universities, formed in 2006
  • Guild HE is a specialist group of 32 universities in areas such as art, design, teacher training, agriculture, music and drama.

There are also a number of faith-based universities and independent institutions.

As far as the university masters student is concerned there are a number of factors that govern the selection of a university to study, so whether a particular institution belongs to one group or another should not be an issue.

If the student is awarded a place to study, then it is up to the student to make the most of the opportunity that is presented.

Choosing a university by location

Many UK students choose between different university types. This is based on the size, the campus experience, the social life and welfare support as well as the course.

Location is important if the student has family ties or financial considerations. Sometimes it’s much harder to relocate away from home for an undergraduate degree. Masters students are more experienced in university life, but if they are relocating from overseas then all these issues are important.

Here are a few things to think about when choosing a university based on location:

  1. Cost of living: The cost of living in different cities and can be vastly different.
  2. Quality of life: Do you want to study in a big city with lots of nightlife and recreation options or do you prefer a more laid-back atmosphere in a smaller town?
  3. Proximity to family and friends: If you have strong ties to a place, you may want to choose a university that is nearby so you can stay in close contact with your family and friends.

Some universities are located adjacent to major employers. This is because they have long standing connections to that sector. Example of this include: -

Facilities – they make a difference to your future destination

Many traditional Universities operate on a faculty model, with masters courses that reflect the ‘expertise’ invested in the individual schools and departments. Masters students will have opportunities to contribute to the creation of new knowledge, and potentially complete a research degree.

UK Universities established in the last 60 years have a similar structure, with a course portfolio focussed on creating opportunities for work. Subjects in the service industries, business and creative sectors often mirror the needs of the wider local economy.

Facilities on offer are geared more towards specific employers and within niche areas.

Historically, long-established universities led the way in research. However there are many examples of modern universities that have achieved international research excellence through their association with specific industries.

They have invested in amazing facilities and developed partnerships with new companies, that support cutting edge R&D and also provide valuable high-tech careers.

Placements and work experience – available at masters level

You can also consider masters courses that include a period out in industry on a work placement. These are becoming an important feature of many masters courses because they enable students from home and overseas to complete a secondment with an employer to work on a project.

This secondment often forms the basis of the written dissertation which is usually the final component of a masters degree. The dissertation contributes up to a third of the overall credits awarded.

Choosing to study a masters course at a university that has a reputation in a specialist field will offer you a rewarding study experience. There will be great opportunities for networking with employers in that area after you have graduated. There is lots to consider when you choose between different university types.