What is the difference between a school, college and university in the UK?

Talya Honebeek
Talya Honebeek
Published on: 26 April 2021 • 5 min read

Schools, colleges, universities. You probably remember your own time at each of these places, but did you know that these words mean completely different things depending on where you live? 

Whilst American students may use the terms college and university interchangeably, this isn’t the case in the UK, where each word means something very different.

So what is the difference between college and university in the UK?

In the UK the education system is best understood by splitting it into four main parts. At the end of each of these parts, students take exams and assessments to progress to the next stage.

First, all children attend primary education at school between the ages of 5-11. They then move to a secondary school, where they work towards their GCSE qualifications. 

Though this is where compulsory education ends, many students then choose to move onto further education at a college or sixth form where they take A-Levels, BTECs or similar qualifications.

Those students who complete their further education may then choose to go on to higher education. This means studying their chosen subject(s) as a bachelor’s degree at university.

Here is our guide to what a British person means when they are talking about their school, college or university.

School

Though many children attend early years nurseries, starting school is the first big step for any child starting education. 

All children in the UK are legally required to attend primary and secondary education. Generally, this equates to studying in a primary school between the ages of 5-11 before going on to a secondary school until you are 16.

Primary education introduces children to the main subjects and skills they will go on to develop throughout their time in education. From learning to read and write to starting subjects like mathematics and science, all the basics are learned here.

Secondary education is all about working towards attaining GCSEs or other national qualifications. Compulsory core subjects like English, maths and science are taught alongside a mixture of humanities, languages and arts subjects.

So in terms of high school vs college, in the UK high school is your compulsory education. But what is college? We’ll explain below.

College

In America, “college” means higher education, but in the UK college is where many students go for two years after finishing school at 16. 

Students can choose between studying at a school sixth form, sixth form college or a further education college. 

School sixth forms are attached to secondary schools, meaning the site is often shared by all students from year 7 through to year 13 (aged 11-18). 

They offer a variety of A-level and BTEC subjects and qualifications and offer students the chance to continue their education in a familiar environment surrounded by their friends and teachers they already know from doing their GCSEs.

Sixth form colleges are very similar, with the main difference being they are not attached to secondary schools. On the other hand, further education (FE) colleges provide a totally different learning environment. 

There are no students under the age of 16, and because they are open to the community, people older than 16-19 may also enroll in courses. 

Speaking of courses, there is often a wider variety of courses available at FE colleges, with a mixture of A-levels (or equivalent qualifications) and more vocational, job-focused courses.

University

In the UK, higher education takes place at universities. Once students have completed their two years at sixth form or college, they can apply to university to study for a bachelor’s degree. 

So one of the main differences between university and college is that college in the UK is usually pre-university. 

The majority of university degree programmes last three years, but some specialist courses such as medicine or dentistry last five years or more. 

There are around 130 different universities to choose from, each with its own academic specialisms and individual quirks. Some universities may rank higher for law or medicine, whilst others are known for having an outstanding modern foreign languages department. 

You have a lot more choice when it comes to choosing your degree subject and modules than you do at college or sixth-form. From modules about Harry Potter to degrees in ethical hacking and cybersecurity, there will be a university for you whatever your interests. 

If you have ever attended or applied for a UK university, you will probably also have come across the term ‘Russell Group university.’ The Russell Group is essentially a group of 24 research-led UK universities thought of as the gold standard of academia.

Once you graduate from university, you can either get a job or continue your education with a postgraduate course. You can choose from taught or research-based master’s degrees, and can even go on to PhD level study if you want to pursue a career in academia.

The main difference between college and university is that college is usually pre-university or more vocational, whereas university is more academic. 

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Talya Honebeek
Written By
Talya Honebeek

Talya is a part-time journalism master's student living in North Yorkshire.


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