Higher Education in Great Britain

Although one should never generalize about another culture or try, in a few words, to describe such idiosyncratic institutions as another country's universities, this section does both. Arcadia believes it is critical to be prepared for immersion in the British educational system by describing some of its important characteristics. Here are a few things we think it will be helpful for you to know.

Postsecondary Education in Britain

When you compare statistics on postsecondary education in Britain with those on higher education in the United States, you are immediately struck by the great differences in scale.

America has lots of universities, and many very large ones. We have some 2,100 four-year, postsecondary institutions, more than 50 of which have enrollments in excess of 25,000 students.

In all of the United Kingdom (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) there are about 115 universities and another 140 "colleges" of such specialties as fine arts, music and drama, technology or education.

A typical British university enrolls 6,000 to 12,000 students, with only the very largest one or two accommodating more than 20,000. (The exception is Britain's Open University, a non-residential institution, which serves more than 20,000 students.)

Student Populations

A far smaller proportion of students attend colleges and universities in Britain than in the United States. While more than half of the high school graduates in the United States every year go on to a postsecondary educational program of some kind, in the United Kingdom only about one-third do. 65% of British secondary school graduates have finished their formal education at the age of 17 or 18. They will spend the rest of their productive lives working (and receiving on-the-job training) or looking for work.

The students who go on to college are very well-prepared to do so. During the last two years of high school they specialize in college preparatory courses (many of which are similar to the advanced placement courses available in U.S. high schools) and then they take special national examinations ("A-level" exams or "Scottish leaving examinations") in order to qualify to compete for acceptance to a university program.

It is during this process of studying for their end-of-high-school examinations that most British students acquire that breadth of academic knowledge and understanding which we in North America would recognize as the fundamental components of a liberal education.

By the time they get to university level, most British students are prepared to concentrate on a particular subject, and they are expected to do so.

Admission to University

In the United Kingdom, students are admitted not to a university as a whole but to a specific course of study within it. They are accepted, for example, to study chemistry at King's College, or to study English at the University of Aberdeen.

The idea that a student might usefully pursue courses in three or four different academic departments during a given semester is a North American one. It is not a practice followed on the other side of the Atlantic.

A political science major, for example, will take almost all of his/her courses each semester in the political science department. That student might be allowed to "minor" in another subject closely related to the "major" (for example, history or international relations or law) or may be in a "joint honors" (double major) program, but this individual would never encounter a requirement to pass a course in mathematics or English or music appreciation in order to complete undergraduate degree requirements.

The point here is that the host country students with whom you will be studying are much more restricted in their choices of courses than you are or will be.

Degree Programs

Most bachelor's degree programs in the United Kingdom are three years (6 semesters or 9 terms) long. This abbreviated time period recognizes that students engage in focused work in a narrow range of discipline as undergraduates.

The exception to this generalization is in Scotland, where many undergraduate degree programs are four years long (which leaves many Scottish graduates feeling that they have earned the equivalent of an American master's degree).

Arcadia program students frequently find themselves enrolled in second year courses. This does not mean that an American junior is being demoted to sophomore level; it means, rather, that the course which is appropriate for you is the one which is taught the year before graduation.

In a three-year degree program, this would be a second-year course. Arcadia program students are often successful in some third year British courses and many take first year courses in disciplines in which they've had no previous background.

Approaches Toward Students

Probably the key difference between higher education in the United Kingdom and that with which you are familiar in the United States comes in the approach which the host institution will have to you as a student.

They will assume that you are a serious learner. You should understand from the outset that nobody at the host institution feels an obligation to teach you. You should expect to find instructors who are glad to lecture, happy to discuss, pleased to read and to criticize what you have written and who are interested in responding to what you have to say.

You will find those same instructors equally willing to leave you alone, to let you attend or not, to permit you to choose to turn in assignments or not, to allow you to set your own pace.

It would be highly unusual for British instructors to go out of their way to ensure that you are doing your work. Chances are that you will not be closely monitored, you will not have your hand held, you will not be told (without asking) how or when to do all the work that you should be doing.


There are, however, expectations. You will be expected to turn in assigned papers and to perform successfully on examinations. In order to do these things, you will need to have done, on your own, a fair amount of reading on, thinking about and perhaps even discussing of the topics covered in the course.

You will find academic subjects presented in a variety of ways: large lectures (you are probably familiar with these in the United States), smaller classes (these are usually conducted by the lecturer or by an assistant to the lecturer and frequently focus on topics that are dealt with in the lectures), and seminars (here an instructor and up to twenty students gather to discuss readings that might have been done or papers which might have been written by members of the seminar group).


Most courses rely heavily on your doing a good deal of reading during your non-scheduled time. The list of readings which is distributed by the instructor on (or near) the first day of class can be quite intimidating. As many as 50 or more books and articles can appear on the reading list. The instructor responsible for the course will expect you to "look into" several of these works. He or she may not want to tell you which ones.

As an intelligent student who is responsible for his/her own intellectual development, you will be expected to decide which materials to read. You will be encouraged to find themes among them that are of interest to you and then to do further reading on those themes. You may then be asked to write a paper setting forth your analysis of one or more of these themes. When this happens, be sure to find out what's meant by the term "paper" and, if you can, ascertain the instructor's expectations concerning form, length, citation of sources, etc.


Examination timetables in Great Britain are usually not set until at least halfway into the semester. It is imperative that you attend your assigned exam time. No exceptions will be made, except possibly in cases of true emergency. If you do not fulfill your academic responsibilities and do not complete your examinations as scheduled, you may fail any affected courses, and Arcadia will not be able to intercede on your behalf in such cases.

Almost invariably you will be expected to "sit" an examination at the end of each of your courses. In some courses, this final examination may be the only evaluation of your work. It is thus possible, in a full-year course, to come to a three-hour time slot at the end of the year during which you must demonstrate, by answering a few questions, that you have read widely, thought deeply and learned something of significance during the preceding nine months. Generally there will be fewer assessed papers and tests in British classes than you are used to.

Please note that due to the nature of the British academic calendar, many programs will have a month-long Easter/spring break followed by a 4-6 week exam period with few or no classes being held. It is possible for students to potentially have no exams at the beginning and only have exams at the end of this time slot with a lot of unstructured time in between. Exam timetables vary widely depending on what you are studying and on individual university and departmental policies. As the exam timetables are not set until much later in the semester, it is impossible to advise about this in advance of your arrival, so you must be prepared for potentially having unstructured, independent time to study during the exam period.

Comprehensive Work

The emphasis in the UK is on producing comprehensive work that shows both the breadth of your reading and the originality of your approach to a subject. American students find it particularly challenging to be expected to summarize the work of an entire semester or year in one or two papers and/or a single three-hour examination period.

Nearly every university provides special tutorial sessions on paper-writing and/or exam-taking for their own students, which you should plan to attend if you are not certain about these expectations.


Clearly, your academic life will be different overseas. You wouldn't want it to be exactly like home, would you? It's a challenge. It can even be fun. It's an opportunity to show what you can do pretty much on your own. You have already demonstrated an ability to handle the academic work - if you couldn't, you wouldn't have been accepted. Now what you will need to discover is how to continue being a successful student in quite different surroundings.

As a general rule, you will be expected to take charge of your education in Britain. You must be certain you know how you are being assessed in each of your classes, since the patterns vary quite widely, even within the same university. You will be required to take any examination and/or special assessment for which you qualify during the period you are in attendance at the university.

Arcadia University's Role

The role of Arcadia University The College of Global Studies will be to help and support you throughout the academic process.

  • At the beginning of your overseas experience our staff will help to orient and advise you.
  • We will put you in touch with individuals on the host campus who will help you to register in the classes you elect to take. We will provide you with guidance concerning the academic calendar and credits, requiring that you register for a full academic load and that you do not overload or underload without special permission. (Such permission must come not only from the host institution but also from your home institution and from the Arcadia University College of Global Studies.)
  • We will facilitate communication between you and your home school in an attempt to resolve any course or credit conflicts that may arise during the registration process.
  • Members of our staff will visit you on campus from time to time not only to check on your academic enrollment but to ask how you're doing in general. If there are difficulties, we encourage you to reach out to us, bring them to our attention and let us help you resolve them.
  • We acknowledge responsibility to several parties in the study abroad process.
  • We have a responsibility to you, our student, to be certain that you are given the educational opportunity which you expect to find overseas and to provide you with the opportunity to succeed academically. We have an obligation to your family to do everything within reason to assure your safety and well-being. We have an obligation to your home school to receive your credits and grades from the host institution and to "translate" and report them honestly.
  • We must also notify your home school of situations of which we become aware which may affect the credit that you will be likely to transfer back from a study abroad experience.
  • That way, we try to avoid having anyone surprise anyone else at the end of a program.
  • Finally, we have an obligation to get out of your way and give you an opportunity to gain everything possible from your study abroad experience.
  • At orientation, you will be required to sign a Arcadia University academic contract.
  • This contract states your responsibilities as a Arcadia program student. If you have any questions about it, please discuss them with your program manager before leaving this country.
  • Arcadia University and its overseas staff serve as a safety net, a point ofcontact.
  • We will provide a good deal of advice and guidance. We are there for you to call on when you need us. It is you, however, you who's undergoing this study abroad experience. We hope it will be all you expect.

Differences in UK/U.S. Learning Environments

The Campus
  American University British University
Integrated Campus Less Centralized
Reserve Section Books ordered, recalled
24 hour access 9AM-7PM, limited weekends
Roommates, shared Single rooms, usually
The Classroom
  American University British University
SATs, general requirements 'A' Level Exams, Scottish highers
Coursework organization
Syllabus, texts, assignments Lectures, reading lists, seminars
Broad, covers essentials Narrow, specialized topic
Reach closure, follow leader Open-ended, questions raised
Grading and Assessment
  American University British University
Quizzes, exercises, mid-terms Written work: one or two essays
Mixed format, reproduce knowledge Essays, 3 hours, wide choice of topics
Thesis, sources, linear argument Discursive, speculative, structured
Passing, 60-100% Passing, 35-70%+

Essays in British Universities: What Earns a Good Grade?

In order of priority

  1. Intellectual Focus:Does the essay consistently address a specific question or thesis and not just a general topic?
  2. Does it recognize all the important implications of the question and focus tightly on these in every paragraph?
  3. Essay Structure: Is the essay presented as a coherent structure so that each paragraph follows the last?
  4. Is there a specific plan for the essay? Is there a clear reason why one point follows another?
  5. Depth of Analysis: Are all the main points fully developed, and not just baldly stated?
  6. Does the essay examine the complexity of evidence and range of different ideas on the subject?
  7. Depth of Knowledge: Are the main points supported by well chosen and specific evidence or apt quotations?
  8. Does the essay reveal a reasonable depth of knowledge of the sources read, not just a recitation of the more obvious facts?
  9. Prose Style: Is the essay presented in clear, accessible and effective prose?
  10. At the end, is the reader quite sure what the writer intended to convey?