Some of the UK’s best universities have the word ‘college’ in their name. So, does this mean there is no difference between university and college in the UK? Well, sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. Let me try and clarify in 6 quick points.
Universities are for ‘higher education’
In the UK, an institution that teaches undergraduate and / or postgraduate degrees is known as a ‘higher education provider’ (or a ‘higher education institution’). All universities in the UK are higher education providers.
But, to make things a bit more complicated: Not all higher education providers are universities. Read on.
‘College’ can mean ‘part of a university’
A number of universities in the UK are made up of colleges. How much freedom and what roles / responsibilities the colleges have can vary.
In ‘collegiate’ universities for example the colleges might provide student housing, scholarships and student support. Or they might also be responsible for selecting their own students or for providing some of the teaching.
Colleges that are part of ‘federal’ universities have even more freedom: They’re independent to run their own institutions as they see fit, although there’ll be some common regulations they all have to follow.
Some universities call themselves ‘college’
One thing that I got confused by when I was choosing a university in the UK was that a number of really famous universities had the word ‘college’ or ‘university college’ in their name. What I then learned is that they are universities, not colleges.
The reason they might have ‘college’ in their name is usually to do with how and when they were originally set up . Some of these institutions have in recent years decided to change their name to ‘university’. But others have decided to keep their original name because it’s part of their history and identity – or because they were forced to by their own students.
You can’t just call yourself a ‘university’ – it’s a legal status
This brings me to a couple of important differences between a university and a college in the UK: The right of an institution to call itself a ‘university’ and its right to give out degrees.
For an institution to call itself a university it must be legally recognised as one. Currently, only about 150 UK institutions offering degrees have ‘university status’.
Similarly, although most UK universities can award their own degrees, not all universities / colleges can, even if they teach degree courses. If you study at a university or college that doesn’t have ‘degree-awarding powers’, you would be taught there but your qualification would come from another provider – in most cases, from a university.
Sometimes ‘college’ just means ‘college’…
In the UK, there is a large number of ‘higher education’ colleges that teach degree courses and ‘further education’ colleges that offer other types of academic, vocational and professional qualifications
The difference between these colleges and universities is that, whilst they might offer higher education courses, much of what they teach may not be university-level qualifications. They’re also usually much smaller in size and can’t award degrees. Or their degrees are ‘validated’ (confirmed) by another institution / a university.
…but ‘college’ also means ‘school’
One thing that can be confusing is that UK students often ‘go to college’ to get the qualification they need to enter university. That’s because when students in the UK reach senior secondary school, they can choose to do this part of their education in a school, a ‘sixth form’ college or a ‘further education’ college. The qualifications they get when they finish college (for example, A-levels) are school leaving qualifications.
Having said all of this, in the UK there are important differences between ‘university’ and ‘college’. Whereas in some countries it may be usual to hear “When I finish school, I’ll go to college” – meaning “…I’ll go to university” – in the UK, ‘college’ is often understood as being below university level.
If you say ‘I’m going to college’ in the UK, many people will assume you’re talking of a sixth form college (and, therefore, of senior secondary school) or a further education college.
However, some of the UK’s best universities have ‘college’ in their title, but they are universities. If you’re applying to one of them, you’d be ‘going to university’. Other types of colleges are not universities and can’t use the word ‘university’ in their name.