Sure, we’ve all heard of the elite UK universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.
We know the countless geniuses, prime ministers, comedians, actors and business leaders they’ve produced.
Stephen Hawking, David Cameron, Emma Watson, Mr. Bean - they’re all amazing, talented, smart and funny people; but was it their university that helped them? Or were they just naturally gifted?
What’s more, could they have got the same standard of education elsewhere for a better deal?
When you look at the rankings and alumni of the top UK universities, of course they look great!
But what about off paper and in reality? Do they teach practical skills that translate across into the workforce? Are these universities really worth the cost, the time and the effort of applying?
Let’s take a look at some of the key aspects of studying in the UK, particularly as an international student, and at the end I’ll let you know whether it’s all worth it.
Is studying in the UK worth it?
There’s no better place to start when assessing an education system than the academics.
Sure, sure, the top UK universities consistently poll at the pointy end of most rankings, but it seems like there's only a handful that are worth considering.
Well, in the top 100 universities, as ranked by QS World University Rankings, 16 are from the UK, which sounds mightily impressive. However, when you compare it to the US education system, which has almost double that number, with 31 colleges in the top 100, it doesn’t seem so great.
Obviously, it’s the Oxbridge universities, Cambridge and Oxford, which are the first choice for top education in the UK.
Cambridge and Oxford are undoubtedly two of the best school in the world. Their strengths are evident beyond their respective rankings of fifth and sixth in the world. Oxbridge colleges boast:
- Small tutorial sizes
- World class academics
- Close-knit communities that yields lifelong relationships
- Impeccable graduate employability rates
- Close proximity to one of the world’s cultural, political and business hubs, London
- Powerful alumni networks
- Higher average graduate salaries than other universities (with the exception of LSE)
Evidently there's plenty to like about these two colleges. But given you can only apply to one of them each application round, what else does the UK have on offer?
Well, the UK also has the Russell Group universities. 17 world class British research universities including University College London, Imperial College London, King’s College London and London School of Economics.
You may never have heard about any of these unis, but on a global scale they make quite an impact. In fact, the UK undertakes 5% of the world’s scientific research and produces 14% of the world’s most frequently cited papers, and the Russell Group unis have quite a bit to do with this.
Given the success of UK universities with papers and scientific research, it may not come as a surprise to discover that they endorse a vocational, in-depth approach to education.
This approach is neither a positive or a negative, it just depends on what you want to do with your life. If you’re planning on going into a highly specialised field, such as astrophysics, then this system will serve you well! But if you’re considering a broader career, such as business or marketing, perhaps it’s not so practical.
Regardless, one downfall of this approach is that is allows for little interdisciplinary learning, meaning you are offered few avenues to explore your interests. Exploration is reserved for extracurricular hours. How old school!
Unfortunately, the traditional nature of the UK education system also means that a majority of your final grade is dependent on an exam at the end of the year as opposed to an accumulation of all your semester's work.
But it’s not all bad; let’s consider the positives for a moment.
One big benefit that comes with studying in the UK, and at Oxbridge in particular, is the tutorial system.
This refers to the regular meetings of three or four with a tutor (an academic employed by your college, and often a leading expert in your given subject).
This is advantageous for obvious reasons – small tutorials mean lots of contact time, a focus on individual learning, and a space where you get academically stretched by someone who really knows their stuff.
On the other hand, if you're a collaborative learner who works better in a team, this mightn't be the style for you.
The Academic Roundup
Top 5 UK universities: Cambridge, Oxford, University College London, Imperial College London, London School of Economics
Top 5 subjects in the UK: English language, Maths, Arts & Humanities, Politics, Biological Sciences
What the UK does well: Smaller class sizes and focused tutoring offered at the top colleges. You’ll gain holistic, complete and in-depth knowledge of a specific area – perfect if you love what you study.
What the UK doesn’t do so well: The rigid course structure and traditional approach to education allows for little exploration beyond classroom interests. There’s also heaps of coursework and reading that goes into earning a UK degree!
Is it Worth it?
Ultimately, you should decide for yourself which suits you more.
To make the process even easier, I'll end with a simple, two question test that might help you make up your mind!
A. Are you torn between your passions and don't know which to study? (If yes, the US is for you! If no, go to B)
B. Do you love a specific subject that you want to know everything about and pursue it for the rest of your life? (If yes, the UK is for you)
Look, we’d be lying if we said your time at university isn’t supposed to be some of the greatest years of your life. You will be spending the next three plus years of your life in your uni’s city so make sure it’s a place you like.
Will you be partying, drinking and joining secret societies?
Or will you be more focused on studying, reading and drinking tea?
Well, truthfully, it hinges on what you make of your time studying in the UK, but you’ll have an easier time finding a tea drinking college.
If you’re looking to just do one semester abroad, you can find places that like to party, such as the University of Leeds, but these colleges are few and far between.
In the UK, you’re far more likely to find a tame university. Most universities require a lot of studying, reading and quiet nights in to keep up with the course work, so partying becomes a luxury.
In order to help you stay atop your workload, most universities will offer your basics – libraries, gyms, student centres, etc.
However, some will have much nicer facilities and many more clubs and social organisations for you to join. Generally speaking, the Oxbridge and Russell Group universities are more well-endowed, so their facilities tend to be nicer.
Research the unis you are considering to figure out if they have the facilities and extracurricular activities you would like to have at your disposal. Depending on how sporty or social you are, these factors can be just as influential in your decision as the course itself!
Interested in seeing what life is actually like at Cambridge? Check out the video below!
The Lifestyle Roundup
What they do well: If you do your research, you’ll be able to find a healthy mix of party universities and academic/research universities. Depending on what you want to get out of your university experience, a world class degree or unforgettable memories (note: you can have both), can be gained in the UK.
What the UK doesn’t do so well: While there are some “party” universities, more often than not, the UK experience is about studying, especially at the more well-known institutions. It can be hard to find time in between classes and study sessions to hit the town!
On top of this, over half of the 3,100 international students surveyed by the NUS in 2013 said they felt unwelcome in the UK. So it’s certainly not all tea and crumpets for international students.
Is it Worth it?
Studying abroad is totally worth it... but only if you know what you're doing. A year (or three) abroad experiencing a new culture offers you a rare and invaluable experience. However, your time at university is only what you make it. You can lock yourself inside and study, go out raging and partying and forget about uni or completely immerse yourself in a new culture.
Just make sure you research the university before you apply. Each university will be more supportive of a certain type of lifestyle, whether that be socialising, partying, studying or otherwise. You don’t want to enroll at a party university thinking you’re going to be getting an elite education, or vice versa.
The Cost and Financial Support
Historically speaking, the UK costs a flippin’ mint to attend… the sticker price is pretty competitive for the most expensive education in the whole freaking world – especially when it comes to international students.
For some courses, such as medicine, students from outside the EU are charged up to four times as much as UK students. Additionally, fees can often rise as the course progresses.
However, when you compare it with the US, the UK comes off as quite the bargain.
For example, tuition and cost of living at the University of Oxford as an international student studying medicine costs approximately $47,636 USD per year.
Then when you look at the cost of tuition for medicine at Yale including all living costs, the final fee reaches a whopping $64,990 USD per year!
So while it’s definitely expensive to study in the UK, when you compare it to the other big player in the world of education, it actually seems almost affordable.
And obviously, the world's best comes at a price, education or otherwise.
But wait, there's more...
One of the real pitfalls of the UK education system is its lack of financial support! On this front, the US has the UK covered easily!
If you’re an EU/UK student you are in line for government support, but if you’re an international student you might struggle to find financial aid of any kind.
That’s not to say there aren’t any avenues, they’re just hard to come by and extremely competitive.
Your best bet as an international student is to look for a scholarship, whether that be from the government, the university or a private institution. There are a number of scholarships available for international student looking to study in the UK.
This is where the cheaper tuition really has an impact on you as a potential student. The US offers a plethora of avenues towards achieving financial aid because they can afford it. And they can afford it because they charge so freaking much!
Somewhat of a double-edged sword, really.
I know what you’re thinking. I can’t afford UK tuition without some sort of aid!
Well, there are certainly some options. Oxford, for example, offers five international undergraduate scholarships based on your home country. The best thing about these scholarships is that most of them pay for your tuition fees and living costs.
Cambridge offers just four international scholarships while University College London has more than 15 international scholarships available for undergraduate students based on either financial need or merit.
So while financial aid is hard for international students, scholarships do exist. It’s just a matter of finding them.
The Financial Roundup
What the UK does well: Hmmm, well when it comes to cost and affordability, there's not much at all that the UK does well. It's super expensive and there's not much financial support available. In saying that, you only have to pay for three years of university in the UK, where in the US it’s four.
What the UK doesn’t do so well: The cost of tuition and living may be cheaper than the US, but it's still super expensive. To make matters worse, there's little to no financial support available and what's available is hard to obtain!
Is it Worth it?
Again, this depends. If you're keen on becoming an academic, the UK is the place to be and the cost shouldn't impact your dreams. However, if you're just keen to get a good degree and enter the workforce with as little debt as possible, you might find a more affordable place at home or in the US.
Given it's so difficult to obtain financial support or a scholarship in the UK, I'm gonna say it's not worth it at all. That is unless your childhood dream is to attend a UK college.
Return On Investment
With all the chat about the UK being a top location to study, is it actually any good at fulfilling one of the primary objectives of obtaining a degree: getting you a job and earning you money?
Well, it can be, but it’s certainly far from the best in the world.
In 2016, 88.0% and 87.3% of UK Master’s degree graduates and Bachelor’s degree graduates were employed, respectively. So obviously a degree from a UK college can help you secure a job, that's a given.
However, according to QS World University Rankings, there are only two UK universities in the top 10 for graduate employability, and you guessed it, it’s Cambridge and Oxford. Conversely, the US has five colleges in the top 10 for graduate employability.
So while the UK has a high percentage of graduate employment, it’s trumped by the US for selection of colleges with a high graduate employability success rate.
And when you consider the average starting salary of graduates, the gap between the two countries begins to widen further.
At Harvard, a graduate earns an average of $60,000 USD as a starting salary. Conversely, graduates from Oxford and Cambridge earn almost 50% less than that figure, averaging $34,254 USD on a graduate salary, presumably because students go into more specialised and/or academic careers that take longer to materialise financially.
Given you're forking out about $47,636 USD per year with little to no financial support, $34,254 USD isn't gonna help you bring home the bacon. Certainly not in the short term, anyway.
What the UK does well: In the long run, the ROI on a top-notch UK degree is evident. However, graduates of non-Russell Group universities will earn $1.85 million USD in their lifetime, while a Russell Group graduate can expect lifetime earnings of $2.14 million, and Oxbridge graduates $2.41 million USD.
What the UK doesn’t do so well: As far as ROI goes, the UK is irrefutably bad, especially in the short-term. High tuition fees, little financial support and sub-par graduate salaries. It'll be years before you're paying off anything.
Is it Worth it?
Well, not really, to be honest. That is, unless you’re planning on becoming a full time academic.
If you’re looking to take the more traditional route – graduating, finding a job and then making bank – you’re better off heading elsewhere. While you won’t have trouble finding a job with your UK degree, you won’t be making nearly as much money as other parts of the world, especially when you add your student debt to the mix!
However, if you want to become an academic and continue your life at university reading, researching and teaching, the UK is perfect for this.
Well, for me the answer as to whether the UK university system is worth it is simple!
With minimal financial support, high student fees and average graduate salaries, the UK system is far from perfect.
Yet, even casting aside all the crippling student debt you'll no doubt face, the UK education system’s approach to learning is equally far from perfect. It's intensely academic and often very rigid.
This means that through your study, you may lack the skills required to excel within the 21st Century workforce – flexibility, creative thinking, mental elasticity and interpersonal skills.
So if you want to graduate with a degree and enter the workforce ASAP, is the UK worth it?
At the end of the day, the detriment of the system is that it's prohibitively expensive, drives people into academic fields and offers little preparation for the workforce (obviously there are some exceptions).
So it's not worth attending one of these "world class", "elite" institutions if you just want to start climbing the corporate ladder. You can get that from a degree at any old college andavoid the crippling debt.
The UK system isn't great at preparing graduates for life after uni. It's that simple.
However, the UK can be perfect for some people if you know what you're getting into. For example, if you want to become the best in the whole freakin' world in an academic field, you must study in the UK!
The UK offers an education system that is conducive to academia and serious specialisation. So is that's your dream, shoot for the stars!
Whatever your dream, don't stress. There's the perfect uni out there for you somewhere, it just mightn't be in the UK!