What is a university foundation programme? Who needs to do one?  Find out here and get 12 tips for choosing the best international foundation course for you.

1. University Entrance Requirements

study tips for international students

Before we get on to the question of how to choose your foundation programme, let’s first have a look at the standard university entry requirements.

In the UK, primary school starts at the age of 5 and pupils complete 13 years of schooling before they start university.   Most UK students apply to university with a qualification called ‘A-levels’ (if they went to school in Scotland, they usually take Scottish ‘Highers’).

Of course not everyone who applies to university in the UK has A-levels or Scottish Highers.  British universities accept many different qualifications for admission onto their undergraduate degrees, from the International, European and French Baccalaureates, to the Abitur, the Matura qualifications, Advanced Placements – as well as a number of high school diplomas and leaving certificates from many countries around the world.

However, in some education systems, school education ends after a maximum of 12 years.  This level is not considered sufficient for entering higher education in the UK.   Therefore, if you have less than 13 years of school education, it is likely you would need to take an additional qualification in your home country or in the UK before enrolling onto a degree course at a British university.

2.  What Is a Foundation Programme

study tips for international students

One of the most common qualifications that students often decide to take in preparation for university in the UK is a ‘foundation programme’, otherwise called a ‘foundation course’ or ‘foundation year’. The foundation programmes that we discuss in this post are created specifically for international students to bring their qualifications to the same level as British students who’ve had 13 years of schooling in the UK. Therefore, once you have successfully completed a foundation programme, you’re ready to start university.

It’s worth mentioning that not all international foundation programmes have the same name. Some may not have ‘international’ in their title or may be called something similar like ‘University Foundation Programme’.  At Oxford Brookes, one of our foundation courses is called the ‘International Foundation Diploma’ because students gain a diploma qualification once they have completed the programme. We have other foundation programmes which don’t give you a diploma, but they are an integral part of the degree you later go on to study.

3.  What You Study on a Foundation Programme

study tips for international students

A foundation programme will give you the academic and study skills, subject knowledge and understanding of the expectations and teaching style of British higher education. It will also improve your use of academic English, and raise your language skills to a level considered acceptable for a bachelor’s degree.

Foundation programmes should not be confused with ‘pre-sessional’ English language programmes, which help you improve your English language ability but don’t give you a higher academic qualification. You can participate in a pre-sessional programme only if you meet the academic requirements for your university course.

If You Are a Native English Speaker

Even if you are a native speaker, or bilingual, it is likely you will still need to take a foundation programme if your country’s school system lasts less than 13 years. The foundation programme you take may not include English language lessons but will instead focus on improving your use of academic English, as well as study skills and subject knowledge, in preparation for your degree.

At Oxford Brookes, we have a foundation programme for students who have a high level of English but who need more preparation for British higher education. They will be streamed in some study skills modules with students of a similarly high language ability.

4. What Are ‘Streams’ or ‘Pathways’

study tips for international students

Another element you will come across when looking through foundation programmes is that some courses have ‘streams’ or ‘pathways’.   This means that students on a foundation programme will study some topics together, but depending on the stream or pathway they choose, other subject topics may vary.  For example, here at Oxford Brookes our foundation students are able to choose from a number of streams in business and management, marketing, law, politics, computing, media and communication – and more.

If you already know the undergraduate subject area that you want to enter after completing the foundation programme, it would make sense to choose a foundation programme that offers you the suitable stream.  This allows you to focus your academic modules on the right subject.

5.  How to Choose a Foundation Programme

study tips for international students

Foundation programmes not only vary in their subject area focus and content, but also in the entry requirements for each programme.  With so much choice available, how do you know which foundation programme is right for you?

We recommend that when deciding on a foundation programme, you start by considering two things:

  1. Your qualifications and
  2. The subject that you want to study at undergraduate level

Here at Oxford Brookes we work closely with our applicants to help and advise them when choosing from one of our range of foundation programmes. For example, an applicant who is not yet sure what to study at undergraduate level and may need to improve his or her English may opt for the International Foundation Diploma – or the extended International Foundation Diploma if they need the extra English language support.

Of course, many students who take the International Foundation Diploma will know exactly what they want to study following their foundation, and we help them choose the stream and course modules that are most suitable for them.

6.  Other Types of Foundation Programmes

study tips for international students

Sometimes, there may not be an ‘international’ foundation programme that can lead to the degree you plan to study.

However, universities often teach other subject foundation programmes that are suitable for international students as well as British students.

Many British students decide to take a foundation programme if they do not have the necessary A-level qualifications for direct entry on to their chosen degree. For example, we offer an Art & Design Foundation (leading to our architecture and arts-related degrees) and an Engineering Foundation.

As these foundation programmes would focus mainly on academic and subject preparation, you would normally have to meet higher English language requirements.

7.  Where to Study a Foundation Programme

study tips for international students

It’s useful to know that you don’t necessarily have to take a foundation programme in the UK – as UK foundation programmes are available in a number of other countries.

However, a UK-based programme allows you to prepare in the environment or even at the same university where you plan to complete your undergraduate degree.  Also, living and studying in the UK gives you further opportunities to improve your English.

8.  Who Offers Foundation Programmes

study tips for international students

Just as you have a wide range of foundation programmes to choose from, you also have a large choice when it comes to where to take your foundation programme.

There are many UK universities that offer foundation programmes – either taught by the university itself or by a partner (‘private provider’)  specialising in teaching foundation courses.  Or, you may decide to take your foundation programme with a private international college that specialises in university preparation programmes.

Before choosing a college, make sure the universities you want to apply to study for an undergraduate degree accept your chosen foundation programme.

Taking a foundation at a university might make it easier to progress on to a degree, and means you join your university and get used to being there a full year before other students on your degree course. If you take a foundation programme through a private provider within the university itself you will be considered a student of the university and can enjoy being part of university life just like any other student.

9.   University Partnership Alliance

study tips for international students

At Oxford Brookes University we work in ‘alliance’ with six other high-ranking UK universities who also teach their foundation programmes themselves. The universities within the University Pathway Alliance all believe their foundation programmes offer a superior experience due to their high quality and the fact they are approved and regulated by each university’s academic guidelines.

10. What Are the Entry Requirements

study tips for international students

The entry requirements will depend on the foundation programme you choose but they are normally a combination of:

  • Your official high school grades – or your predicted grades, if you still haven’t completed high school, and
  • English language score, usually around IELTS 5.0 – 5.5

If your IELTS is below this level, there are foundation programmes that may consider you.  For example, the entry requirement for the extended International Foundation Diploma at Oxford Brookes, which includes a whole extra semester of English language tuition, is IELTS 4.5.  Foundation programmes for native or near-native speakers will usually require around 6.0 – 6.5 minimum in IELTS.

Also, most foundation programmes will require that you are at least 17 years old by time the programme starts.

11.  How to Apply

study tips for international students

How you apply for your foundation programme will depend on the programme you choose.  With most programmes you apply directly to your chosen college, university or private provider.

However, if you’re applying for a foundation programme that is combined with an undergraduate degree programme, you will need to apply through UCAS (the UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service).

To give you an example, here at Oxford Brookes we offer two foundation programmes that are part of a 4-year degree programme. Any student applying to International Foundation Business and Technology or International Foundation Arts, Humanities and Law would receive an offer to study with us for four years – on a foundation programme in their first year, and then on their chosen degree programme for the following three years.   There are many foundation programmes here in the UK that follow this model.

12.   Automatic Undergraduate Offer

study tips for international students

The advantage of applying for a foundation course that is part of a degree programme is that you receive a single offer letter and visa to study in the UK that is for both your foundation programme and your undergraduate programme.

However, even if you apply for a foundation course that’s not part of a degree programme, in most cases you will be guaranteed an offer for your undergraduate studies – if the course is offered directly by the university or by a private provider partner.

However, be careful not to confuse a ‘guaranteed’ offer with an ‘unconditional’ offer.

Often you are guaranteed admission to your chosen undergraduate degree – if you complete the foundation course successfully and achieve the grades the university requires for your chosen undergraduate degree.

If you take your foundation programme with a private college, they will help you with your UCAS university application.  Even though you might be worried about not having secured automatic progression, if you do well in your foundation programme you should have no problem securing an undergraduate offer with a UK university.


An international foundation year prepares you for undergraduate studies at a British university.  Check with the university that you want to apply to in order to find out if you need an international foundation programme or if you will be accepted with just your high school qualifications.

There is a wide range of foundation programmes and programme providers to choose from.  When deciding upon your foundation programme make sure to select a programme that suits your qualifications, but also your study aims at undergraduate level.  Do remember that, to be accepted onto undergraduate level studies in the UK, your foundation programme has to provide you with academic preparation, not simply study skills or English language preparation.

About the Author

Richard Side Oxford Brookes University

Richard Side is Director of Oxford Brookes International at Oxford Brookes University.

Oxford Brookes is consistently ranked as one of the best modern universities in the UK. Around 20% of our students are from outside of the UK, attracted by our teaching excellence, award-winning facilities, and student support. We are located in the inspiring city of Oxford, known globally as a centre of education, and just one hour from London.

As well as offering international foundation programmes, we offer pre-sessional English courses and pre-master’s courses to prepare international students for their UK bachelor’s or master’s.

Interested in Finding Out More?

Hear what our students have to say about their experience of preparing with Oxford Brookes for their degree.

Read more about our university on the international students webpages.

Contact the Oxford Brookes International Office team with any questions you may have international@brookes.ac.uk.

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