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Location and Geography

The United Kingdom is a sovereign state situated west of continental Europe; its total area is 244,820 square kilometres. It comprises four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is the only part of the U.K. with a land border (with the Republic of Ireland); the rest of the state is surrounded by bodies of water (the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, the English Channel, and the Irish Sea. The English Channel separates the U.K.’s southern coastline from France.

The United Kingdom is renowned for its level plains and rolling green countryside. These predominate in the south and the east, whereas to the north and the west, the landscape includes rugged hills and low mountains. The capital is London.

Climate

The U.K. has a temperate climate, and one that is remarkably varied due to all the water surrounding the area – conditions can change greatly from one day to the next. Scotland in the north tends to be cooler than England, while Wales is generally wetter with more cloud cover. Temperatures generally range from around 0º Celcius in winter to 32º Celcius in summer. In all parts of the U.K., waterproof jackets should be part of the wardrobe.

History and Population

The U.K. has had a tumultuous history. In early times, the region’s predominantly Celtic people were invaded and influenced by a range of different nationalities, including Romans, Norsemen, Vikings, Saxons, and Normans. While the U.K. was for a long time a major coloniser (i.e., during the time of the British Empire), exporting its culture, values, and the English language around the world, it is now increasingly a nation of immigrants, with a diverse mix of European, Asian, and African nationalities influencing the culture as a whole. At the same time, British values continue to find voice around the world in such institutions as the Commonwealth, and to varying extents in the systems and structures of the countries of the former British Empire.

The current population of the U.K. is just over 65 million. England is the most densely populated (approximately 55 million), with the majority of people living in the south east; Scotland’s population is just under 6 million; Wales is about 3 million; and Northern Ireland is just under 2 million. English is the main language, but many other languages are also spoken due to immigration.

Society and Culture

The development and formation of the United Kingdom has occurred in a way that the cultures of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland overlap, yet still have their own diverse and clearly distinctive features. For more information on the distinct cultures, please check out the “More information” section of web links at the end of the U.K. write-up.

The average age is 40. The trend is for younger people to study for longer and for older people to spend more time in retirement. So the time spent in employment during a person’s lifetime has been reduced. Increased life expectancy and working women have also contributed to this trend.

Economy

A member of the G7 and G20 groups, the U.K. economy is the sixth largest in the world by GDP – and among the top three in Europe. It was historically the lead nation in becoming industrialised, and London remains one of the world’s main financial centres.

Services, particularly banking, insurance, and business services, contribute by far the largest proportion of GDP, with industry and manufacturing becoming increasingly less important (as in most affluent nations). While it accounts for a relatively small proportion of GDP, the agricultural industry in the U.K. is highly intensive and efficient, producing roughly 60% of food needs but employing less than 2% of the labour force.

The currency of the UK remains the Pound Sterling.

Government

The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy/parliamentary democracy. The U.K. was the foundation member of the Commonwealth and remains its flagship country today. A founding member of NATO, the U.K. is also a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

The government of England is still solely regulated by the U.K. parliament. Since Devolution in 1999, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have their own legislative bodies and more independent authority in governing their own countries. The chief of state in the U.K. is the Queen, and the prime minister is the head of parliament. England, Scotland, and Wales have regional county councils responsible for local government matters and the large cities (especially London) also have councils (burroughs) that are responsible for local government.

Living Conditions and Cost of Living

In the U.K., the cost of living can vary considerably depending upon location. This link gives some rough accommodation and daily expenses averages for 2016.

A QS article written in 2017 notes,
“International undergraduate tuition fees vary considerably, starting at around £10,000 (~US$12,300) and going up to £35,000 (~US$43,100) or more for medical degrees. At all levels, humanities and social sciences degrees tend to cost the least, while laboratory and clinical degree programs are markedly more expensive.
Combine these fees with the average cost of living in the UK, around £12,000 (~$14,750), and the total average cost of studying in the UK comes up to at least £22,000 (~$27,040) per year. Studying in the capital city, meanwhile, is likely to be significantly more expensive.”

Students from EU countries can receive National Health System (NHS) benefits while studying in the U.K., and may also be entitled to some financial or other forms of assistance. Non-EU students may be eligible for some health benefits under the NHS.

The U.K. lifestyle provides opportunities to experience a wide range of live theatre, museums, art galleries, historical towns and buildings. Travel is available to most parts of the U.K. via train and/or bus and the U.K. abounds in bed and breakfast accommodation as well as backpacker hostels.

Education System

The education system in the U.K. (except for Scotland) comprises four main sectors: primary, secondary, further education, and higher education.

Full-time education is compulsory for all children aged between 5 and 16 (inclusive). Students ordinarily attend primary until they are 11 years old and secondary until they are 16. They may then continue their secondary studies for a further two years (sixth form), leading most typically to an A-level qualification, although other qualifications and courses exist, including the BTEC and the International Baccalaureate. The Education and Skills Act 2008 raised the leaving age for compulsory education to 18.

The UK has just over 438,000 international students enrolled in higher education. Higher education typically begins with a three-year bachelor’s degree. Post-graduate degrees include master’s degrees (usually one year and/or research) and PhDs (at least three years).

While the four countries of the U.K. have differing approaches to vocational education and training (VET), the training and qualifications are interchangeable and of the same standard. Three of the countries (England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) share a common system of external qualifications within the National Qualifications Framework. There are separate bodies within each country responsible for regulating these qualifications.

England has approximately one-and-a-half million full- and part-time students studying in higher education. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education monitors and assesses standards across the range of qualifications offered. Further Education (FE) focuses on development of business and work skills and encourages ongoing lifelong learning and a skilled, efficient and productive workforce in England. The Learning and Skills Council and associated bodies formulate policy and administer further education.

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, higher education bodies are independent, self-governing institutions active in teaching, research, and scholarship. The state, not the institution, issues degrees and higher education qualifications.

Education in Scotland

The Scottish system of education is quite distinct from the education systems of the rest of the U.K. From 1999, it has had its own legislative framework, curriculum framework, and qualifications system. The Scottish Parliament is responsible for the whole system and has established several agencies for education development. For example, the Scottish Qualifications Authority is responsible for issuing all qualifications. Scotland has one main university system: Scotland University, under which all of the individual universities operate.

Universities are located in all of the major cities of the country. Higher education courses in Scotland are usually one year longer than in other countries of the U.K. Emphasis is placed on breadth in a wide range of specialised subjects. Scotland prides itself on the standard of education provided and flexibility allowed in selecting subjects within a course. The Scottish approach is attractive to many students, as they are more likely to be able to change mid-stream in their studies.

Information Specific to International Students

The U.K. ranks second to the U.S. in international students’ preferences for study destinations. Since the 1999 launch of the Prime Minister’s Initiative (PMI), the U.K. has focused on providing more international student places in further and higher education. The U.K. has numerous further and higher education institutions for the international student to consider, and English-language courses are readily available throughout the four countries.

Visa applications for the four countries composing the United Kingdom go to the U.K. Border Agency. Students from the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland do not need a visa to study in the U.K. However, they need to meet the entry requirements of the course they wish to undertake within further and/or higher education, including English-language level requirements (e.g., IELTS).

International students from outside the EEA must apply for a Tier 4 Points Based System Visa. They can apply for a student visa through the Visa Application Centres in other countries (See www.visas.gov.uk). Non-EEA visa regulations are subject to ongoing review, so the student counsellor should make sure to check for the most current rules.

Once approved, a visa is issued for the length of the course of study. Students may receive a visa for both an English-language and a Level 3 (further education) or Level 4 (higher education) course. Some student visas permit work while studying in the U.K.

Education U.K. Training from the British Council

In recognition of the work agents do to promote the U.K., a certificated online course has been designed for agents by the British Council. This global training programme is delivered and managed in-country. The purpose of the course is to:

  • Develop agents’ capacity to work effectively with U.K. institutions
  • Improve knowledge and understanding of the U.K. as a study destination
  • Increase knowledge of U.K. study programmes
  • Enable agents/representatives to provide high-quality information, resources, and services to students seeking an international education
  • Provide agents/representatives with the skills and resources needed to provide relevant, accurate, and trustworthy information.