High School and Undergraduate Education

This description, which is intended only as a general overview and an introduction to the terms you may encounter when investigating British education, applies to universities in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Scottish universities and most of those in the Irish Republic are closer to the American pattern, with a more broadly based undergraduate course.

Ask faculty members for advice on what are good universities/graduate programs in your particular area, and check the websites of the universities you are considering.

High school and undergraduate education in England

The English educational system is unlike the American one in several respects.

  • High school students take a set of national exams in a wide range of subject areas when they are 16 years old.  By that point they are roughly at the level of a graduating senior from high school in the U.S.
  • Students who plan to continue to college (which they call ”university”) decide at that point what subject they will study.
  • They then take two more years of advanced high school work in just three subjects.
  • University-bound students take another set of national exams in their 3 subjects, that expect a level of proficiency comparable to a year or two of college work in this country.
  • Students’ scores or their A-level exams determine how good a university they are accepted into.
  • At university, students work only in their own major field for the undergraduate degree, which is usually a 3-year course (4 years in some of the sciences.)
  • A philosophy student, for example, takes no classes except in that subject, while a biologist might have some further math and chemistry but would concentrate on biology.
  • By the time students receive their undergraduate degree, they have reached a level roughly equivalent to an M.A.  in this country.
  • Some of the newer universities in England, like those in Scotland and many in Ireland, are less specialized; their undergraduate training is closer to what a student would receive in this country.

The older British universities (Oxford, Cambridge, London) and many of the newer ones do not have exams and grades at the end of each semester.

  • Instead, there is a fairly general exam at the end of the first year and then a series of specialized exams at the end of the third year.
  • When the course catalogue from an English university (often called a “prospectus”) talks about doing a “paper” in a given subject, it means preparing for and taking a big exam.
  • If, for example, a given department requires papers in 4 out of 6 designated fields, a student can choose which of those subjects he/she will read about and be examined in at the end of the undergraduate course.

At most universities, the academic year is divided into three “terms” (like our semesters).

  • The first term, usually called Michaelmas or autumn term, starts at the end of September and runs into early to mid-December.
  • The winter term, also about 10 weeks, goes from mid-January until early April.
  • The third term is shorter, commonly covering May and June.

English universities rely much less heavily on lecture courses than do their U.S. counterparts.  While there will be a series of lectures given each term on a variety of topics, these are optional for undergraduates.

  • Instead, most of the instruction is done through “tutorial” sessions, which consist of 1-5 students meeting once each week with a faculty member.
  • At the older universities and in the non-sciences, students may have only a single tutorial course each term.
  • The topic of that term’s work is quite specific.  If, for example, the student is reading history, a tutorial group might focus on the Crusades.
  • Each week, the student meets with the faculty member, either individually or in small groups.
  • At that time they discuss the previous week’s reading and submit their papers.
  • The instructor then gives out a long reading list, which the students are expected to cover by the following week, often accompanied by writing a paper on that particular sub-topic.
  • This system provides a great deal of individual attention and excellent practice in presenting information and ideas both orally and in writing.
  • Science courses normally contain more organized lectures and lab instruction, with some tutorial work for advanced students.

British universities, especially the older ones, consist of a collection of what were originally separate colleges.

As undergraduates, students’ lives are concentrated within their colleges.

They live and eat there, and most of their teaching (apart from science courses with labs) is done by faculty members who are part of that college.

In London, the colleges are spread out over a large geographical area, while in most settings they are clustered within a common university area.

The central focus of undergraduate education is your college, with the university acting mainly as a sort of umbrella organization.