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

By Talya Honebeek• Last updated: Mar 14, 2024
What is the difference between a school, college and university in the UK?
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Do you know colleges and universities offer different purposes and courses in the UK? Academic institutions provide different forms of education in different countries. This often confuses international students as they try to understand which institution offers the study level they seek.

International students prefer to study in the UK to gain a new perspective, experience diverse cultures, and improve their job options for a rewarding career.

But what's the difference between a school, college and university? Here, we cover everything about these educational institutions and the type of academics they offer in the UK.

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The UK education system: An overview

The UK’s education system includes four components.

  1. Primary education
  2. Secondary education
  3. Further education
  4. Higher education

Primary education (Ages: 5 to 11)

Primary education in the UK aims to assist students in achieving literacy, numeric, and other basic skills. The schools focus on improving students’ learning and development and prepare them for the next phases of their academic life.

Secondary education (Ages: 11 to 16)

This education phase introduces students to more complex concepts, preparing them for various external exams like the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and the National Qualifications (NQ) exam in Scotland.

Further education (Ages: Above 16)

In further education, students take up specific subjects, courses, skill training, vocational, or foundation programs before entering higher education. This post-school education prepares them for a more distinct course offered by universities.

Some of the further education courses include.

  • A-levels - The advanced level qualification courses are 2-year subject-based programs recognised as an entrance qualification to higher education in various institutions in the UK.

Students generally study at least three subjects during an A-level course. The subjects include mathematics, English, chemistry, political science, art and design, psychology, history, and many others.

  • BTEC diploma - The BTECs (Business and Technology Education Council) are vocational qualifications that focus on offering subject learning and practical knowledge for various subjects. Students can complete these work-related courses full-time or part-time.

There are three types of BTEC courses: BTEC Firsts, BTEC National Diplomas, and BTEC Apprenticeships. Common subjects for these courses include business, science, art and design, engineering, IT, health and social care, media, and performing arts.

  • Higher National Certificates (HNCs) - HNC courses offer practical skills in various fields of study. These courses can boost your chances to increase employability in your field of interest.
  • T-Levels - T-level courses are technical-based courses that are an alternative to A-levels. These courses focus on developing students’ vocational and skill knowledge in your area of interest.

Higher education (Ages: Above 18)

The higher education phase includes the degree studies offered by colleges and universities. The degrees include undergraduate, postgraduate, and doctorate courses. International students usually arrive in the UK to pursue higher education.

In addition to the four parts, the UK education system is also split into key stages equivalent to its academic phases.

Also read: What should you research before moving to the UK?

Key stages of the UK education system

Key stagesAge (in years)Academic phase
Key stage 15-7
Primary education
Key stage 27-11
Key stage 311-14
Secondary education
Key stage 414-16
Key stage 516-18Further education

Data updated as of November 2023

The UK is one of the ideal study destinations for international students to pursue higher education.

Discover the exciting possibilities and apply for the upcoming intake today!

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What is a school in the UK?

A school is an educational institution that offers primary and secondary education to students. The academic system is designed to help students develop their knowledge and skills in various fields of study, preparing them for examinations and higher studies.

Students complete their primary and secondary education in schools where they learn subjects like English, mathematics, science, history, geography, and humanitarian studies. These institutions also prepare students to take up examinations like the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and National Qualifications (NQs). Children aged between 5 and 16 attend schools in the UK.

What is a college in the UK?

The term college in the UK is quite unique to other countries where students use the words ‘college’ and ‘university’ interchangeably. So what is a college in England? 

A college is an educational institution that offers associate, vocational, and certificate courses. Students would find various program choices with a duration between 2-4 years.

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College UK meaning

Colleges are institutions that are smaller and offer fewer courses than universities. There are colleges that serve different educational purposes in the UK. Let’s take a deep dive into these academic institutions.

  • Further education institutions

Further education institutions or colleges offer academic and vocational programs that are mostly not part of the UK’s compulsory education system. These colleges are often considered as a pre-university study level for students. There are two types of further education institutions: Sixth-form colleges and general further education colleges.

Sixth-form colleges are academic institutions that offer A-level and its equivalent courses. These institutions focus on providing skill-based and academic programs, aiming to improve knowledge and develop specific skill sets for a rewarding career.

General further education colleges provide a wide range of vocational and other courses. These programs greatly benefit students who seek employment opportunities rather than entering a university.

  • Colleges as part of a university

Several universities in the UK have separate buildings, which people traditionally refer to as colleges. This college is a part of the university and has its own academic facilities, resources, and staff.

  • School

A few secondary schools, especially private and same-gender entities, in the UK are also referred to as colleges. Some famous examples include Eton College and Winchester College.

What is a university in the UK?

Universities are educational institutions that offer higher education for native and international students. Most students complete their college studies and enter universities to gain a degree in their desired field.

Universities offer high-level programs like undergraduate, postgraduate, and doctorate courses.

A university is a more prominent institution than a college and a school in terms of infrastructure, size, student volume, research, sports, and other facilities. It is a hub for education, scope, and opportunities for students pursuing higher education for a bright career.

University degree programs usually last for three years, but some fields of study, like medicine, take up to five years or more for students to graduate. These educational institutions offer a variety of courses with unlimited access to academic resources and facilities.

Universities ensure students obtain the required knowledge and skills and prepare them for a scopeful career. After graduation, students typically look for job opportunities or proceed to take up higher education, like postgraduate and doctoral degrees.

Also read: What are the types of UK universities?

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What is a Russell Group University?

The Russell Group is a 24-member university association in the UK headquartered in Cambridge since 1994. The universities offer world-class, research-intensive education and strive to maintain the high standards of higher education in the UK. Here are the universities that come under Russell Group.

Russell Group Universities

UniversityTimes Higher Education Ranking 2024
University of Oxford01
University of Cambridge05
Imperial College London08
University College London22
University of Edinburgh30
King's College London38
London School of Economics46
University of Manchester51
University of Glasgow87
University of Southampton97
University of Birmingham101
University of Sheffield105
University of Warwick106
University of Leeds129
University of Nottingham130
Queen Mary University of London135
University of York147
University of Liverpool168
Newcastle University168
Durham University174
University of Exeter177
Cardiff University190
Queen's University Belfast201-250

Data updated as of November 2023

University list source: The Russell Group official website

Also read: What are the types of degrees in the UK?

What's the difference between a college, school, and university?

International students often find it challenging to understand the UK educational system as the country follows its unique process, academic methods, and trends. Students often get confused with the difference between a school, college, and university while looking for options to study in the UK.

Difference between School vs College vs University in the UK

FactorSchool in the UKCollege in the UKUniversity in the UK
DefinitionEducational institutions that offer compulsory education for children aged between 5 and 16.Educational institutions that offer pre-university study levels.Educational institutions that offer higher education for students.
Education-levelSchools provide primary and secondary education, preparing students with the basics for higher education.Colleges provide further education courses, skill-based practical studies, and vocational programmes.Universities provide academic-centric and professional courses for students to obtain a degree.
Courses offeredStudents get to learn subjects like English, mathematics, biology, physics, chemistry, history, geography, and humanitarian studies. The academic system aids in developing their knowledge and skills in various fields of study and prepares them for examinations and higher studies.Offer foundation, vocational, and skill-based courses.Offer undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral degrees.
FacilitiesSchools have an average student size, accommodation, and a fixed curriculum for students.Colleges are smaller than universities in terms of student size and accommodation, courses offered, resources and facilities.Universities have significant student volumes, various courses in their field of interest, and a wide range of academic resources and facilities.
FeesTuition fees vary with each type of school in the UK.Tuition fee is lower compared to universities.Tuition fee is higher than in colleges.
Student typeOnly native students attend schools in the UK in most cases.Only native students, in most cases, attend college.Most native and international students opt to study in universities.

Universities in the UK

Once students understand the difference between a university and a college, they start to apply for their desired courses in their preferred institution. Here are some of the top universities in the UK.

Top universities in the UK

UniversityTimes Higher Education Ranking 2024
Imperial College London08
University of Edinburgh30
King's College London38
University of Manchester51
University of Glasgow87
University of Southampton97
University of Birmingham101
University of Sheffield105
University of Warwick106
University of Leeds129
Royal Veterinary College401-500
SRUC (Scotland's Rural College)601-800

Data updated as of November 2023

Also read: May Intake in the UK

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Frequently asked questions

Is college called university in the UK?

The terms college and university hold different meanings in the UK. Colleges are educational institutions that offer pre-university study levels. Students can take up further education courses, skill-based practical studies, and vocational programmes here.

Whereas universities are educational institutions that offer higher education studies like undergraduate, postgraduate, and doctorate courses. Most international students visit the UK to pursue any of these courses.

What's the difference between college and university and school?

FactorSchool in the UKCollege in the UKUniversity in the UK
DefinitionEducational institutions that offer compulsory education for children aged between 5 and 16.Educational institutions that offer pre-university study levels.Educational institutions that offer higher education for UG, PG and doctoral degrees.
Education levelPrimary and secondary education.Further education courses, skill-based practical studies, and vocational programmes.Academic-centric and professional courses to obtain a degree.
FacilitiesAverage student size, accommodation, and a fixed curriculum for students.Smaller than universities in terms of student size and accommodation, courses offered, resources, and facilities.Significant student volumes, a wide range of courses in different fields, academic resources and facilities.
FeesTuition fees vary with each type of school.Tuition fee is lower compared to universities.Tuition fee is higher than in colleges.
Student typeOnly native students.Native students, mostly.Most native and international students.

Which is better, college or university in the UK?

It is important to understand that colleges and universities have different focuses and offer different study levels in the UK.

  • Colleges have pre-university studies like further education programmes, skills-based practical and vocational courses.
  • Universities provide more comprehensive courses for UG, PG, and doctoral degrees.

Therefore, one cannot compare or determine which educational institution is better.

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