This page is designed to give you an introduction to the British Higher Education System, to highlight some of the significant difference you might expect and provide some tips on how to get the best out of your programme.

 Why are British Degrees Internationally recognised?

  • Public Universities: With only a few exceptional cases, all British Universities are publicly owned.
  • State Controlled: All British Universities are under the control of the British Government which monitors how they are run and, most importantly through the operation of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the quality of their academic programmes.
  • The Quality Assurance Agency: The QAA is one of the first national government agencies to develop a system of regulating the quality of academic programmes. Its aim is to ensure that standards are not just maintained but improved. Its approach is to place an emphasis on outcomes rather than inputs which allows Universities to innovate in the way they can best deliver a particular subject or meet the needs of a particular group of students. It does this by undertaking very detailed audits, involving extensive investigations and visits, with the resultant reports being published on their website
  • Experience of teaching international students: Historically, the UK was the main study destination for large numbers of future leaders of the newly independent Commonwealth Countries. British universities thus have a long track record of teaching international students. This in turn means that there is a good understanding of the special needs of such students and also the very real contribution they make to the university community through their fresh ideas and different life experiences.
  • Assessment Standards: Both national and international employers trust the British degree as they understand that standards are controlled. The assessment procedures are very tightly controlled and any student caught cheating, or attempting to cheat, will be given a zero mark or a worse penalty. Similarly, plagiarism in any form is not tolerated.
  • Employer credibility: UK degrees ensure that students do study all the core subjects of a specialist degree unlike some other national qualifications where they can choose to avoid subjects they don't like. The smaller class sizes and varied forms of teaching methods also mean that students have the opportunity to develop other skills. Employers therefore know that they can depend on the fact that British graduates have acquired the required knowledge and also developed a range of social and employability skills that will enable them to take on responsible positions.

The British Degree structure

 The British Bachelor Degree

The British Bachelors Degree typically takes three years to complete. This is different from many other countries that typically take four years. The main reason for this is that UK students (except in Scotland) spend a year longer in High School than in many countries and only study 3 - 4 subjects in their final two years. As a result, they have already covered a lot of the material typically taught in the first year at university in other countries. They will therefore start studying their specialist area immediately upon joining the university. This is the reason why many international students will require an International Foundation Programme before progressing onto the first year of a UK degree. (NB. This is different from the "Foundation Degree" which is a new type of degree available in the UK which is work-based and equivalent to the first two years of a Bachelor Degree).

The British Bachelor Degree typically involves three distinct phases for each of the three years. In broad terms, these can be described as below:

First Year (Basics):

As well as clarifying the foundations of the subject, this often includes work to make sure that all students are brought up to a common level with regard to the basic elements of the discipline, within the year. This may involve, in engineering for example, specialist mathematics and physics modules in addition to engineering modules . The first year is therefore typified by covering broader based subject areas, some of which the students may have covered in part in their previous qualifications although probably at a lower level.

Second Year (Essentials):

This year will tend to cover all or most of the core elements of a student's chosen discipline. In many subject areas, this may represent much more challenging material which will often be completely new to the student. While students may have some choice of options, these may be limited especially in those subjects that are controlled by professional accreditation. The objective is often to be able to reassure future employers that a graduate in a particular subject has a broad under standing of all the major topics.

The second year will usually be more intellectually challenging too, with students expected to be more evaluative and critical, beginning to make sound reasoned judgements and convincing arguments about things from their subject that are not trivial. They engage more with theory, reading the subject, and connecting theory to practice.

UK students often complain that the second year gets really tough and that can be very frightening to an international student who has already had to put in a lot of effort adapting to a new education system in their first year. However, for most international students, if they have done a lot of hard work in the first year and so the second year tends to be much less of a shock to them.
Third Year (Specialisations):

While some core teaching may carry though from the second year, this year typically allows students to select a few subjects that they want to study in detail. This gives students the confidence and experience of how to approach a particular area in much more depth. Typically, students will also be expected to develop at least one of these specialisms into a research project where they will acquire the transferable skills associated with research work or extended dissertations. In any event, students at this level are usually expected to be able to be convincingly critical and to be able to evaluate complex scenarios, as well as have a good grasp of the more complex aspects of their subject.

 The British Masters Degree

Again differs from that awarded in many other countries as it is possible to complete the programme within a period of 12 months (minimum). The main reason for this is that the structure of the undergraduate degree means that students have already required experience in undertaking research. The other reason is that the programmes are intensive and take place over the full 12 months. Most taught Masters programmes fall into two roughly equal periods:

Taught Phase:

Lectures in a number of subject areas which are formally assessed and are typically equivalent to 120 masters' level credits.

Research and Dissertation Phase:

A research project which is presented as a dissertation which is then formally assessed equivalent to 60 masters' level credits.

It is possible that the research is slow to yield results or students encounter difficulties in the high level of English language proficiency needed to write the dissertation. Students therefore need to make provision for the possibility that they will take longer than the 12 months to complete their Masters' degree.

It is possible to undertake a Masters' degree by research (MRes or MPhil). This route is typically of interest for those students who plan to have a research career which does not involve teaching or for students who have a specialist interest in a particular area of research but cannot spare three years to undertake a PhD.

It should be noted that the MEng and related programmes are not directly equivalent to a Masters degree. Such programmes represent a four year undergraduate degree. While they include elements of Masters degree coursework, they do not include the research element. They are designed for the Professional Bodies that require this level of training before students can obtain chartered status. For most international students, a Bachelors' degree followed by a Masters' degree has more value internationally than the MEng and related programmes. However, those seeking Chartered Engineering status are advised to obtain advice from the those in their planned profession within the country they plan to work.

 The British Doctorate Degree (PhD)

Is also a little different from many countries. With the exception of the requirement for students to take a module in Research Methodology (if they have not already taken an equivalent module in a previous qualification), all the allocated time will be spent in pursuit of their research interests. This might involve attending relevant classes but not participating in the assessments.

The QAA has published official guidance on the structure of British Higher Education qualifications and Wikipedia provides a good summary.

What is Special about British Degrees?

British degrees place a very strong emphasis on how to use information critically. While it is still important for students to acquire knowledge, today's information society now means that it is increasingly important to know how to acquire information, how to evaluate its worth, and then how to apply it.

Some students come from educational backgrounds were more emphasis is placed on the acquisition of knowledge as transmitted to them by their lecturers. They may therefore find the teaching approaches used in Britain to be quite different; especially in the following areas.


With the possible exception of lectures on foundation subjects typically in the first year, most teaching will be in small classes of less than 30. In such classes, staff will often encourage students to ask questions during the lecture or at the end of the lecture. Students are expected to understand the information they are being given – not just learn it. Therefore students are expected to ask for clarification if they do not understand anything or even challenge the information if it seems to contradict what they already know.

 Independent study:

Given that the emphasis in British universities is to teach students how to acquire information, students are expected to do a considerable amount of independent study. For every hour spent in the lecture, students should typically expect to spend at least a further 4 - 9 hours (depending on the subject) of independent study. This will be split into time to ensure that the material presented in the lecture has been fully understood and recommended reading round the subject and also for preparing set assignments or tasks.

 Practical Work:

Given the emphasis on applying knowledge rather than just learning it, British degrees tend to include a relatively larger element of practical work than in many other countries. This is certainly the case for Engineering, Science and Creative Art subjects. However, students studying Humanities subjects may also be expected to undertake research projects, group exercises, field trips etc. As such practical work is a key component, attendance for practical classes is obligatory for many programmes. Students will typically be requested to write up their practical work to demonstrate how they have been able to translate their theoretical knowledge to a practical situation.


A student's performance will be assessed in many different ways according to the nature of the subject. Most programmes involve the use of exams, assignments and/or practical work and sometimes presentations. Assessments aim to determine, not just what knowledge the student has acquired, but how they can use it. Therefore many assessments will allow students to make a unique submission. This in turn means that there may be many quite different but equally good submissions that can be made in response to a particular question or assignment. There is rarely just one right answer.

 Preparation of Assignments:

Assessed assignments are designed to test a student's understanding and application of knowledge. It is therefore not sufficient on its own to make a submission that just includes all the relevant information. It is necessary to make a submission that has a logical structure that shows that the student understands the information and can apply it appropriately.

Most assignments will ask student students to conform to a specific format. This should be strictly adhered to as it will be part of the overall assessment. This is relevant as many employers will expect their employees to be able to adopt standardised methods of presenting information. Further advice is available on how to prepare reports and essays.

 Integrity of Assessment:

Employers can be confident that a student's degree award does truly reflect the student's own work and effort. British universities have very strict procedures for preventing any "unfair means" that students may use to improve their grades. Perhaps the main area of difficulty for international students is the understanding of the strict rules concerning Plagiarism.

PLAGIARISM: You are guilty of plagiarism when you take the work or an idea of someone else and pass it off as your own. Ignorance is no defence. Plagiarism can take many forms: for example buying an essay on the internet; copying someone's dissertation or piece of work or failing to cite the sources you have used. The university if very strict about plagiarism and will check for its presence in written work by using the software "Turnitin" This software is also able to pick up incidences where students have copied from each other or form the internet. Students can also use the software to check whether they have unintentionally used work that has not been properly referenced.

Those with difficulty understanding the concept of plagiarism and are strongly advised to read the advice the university provides on plagiarism and to read the advice below.

 Marking Schemes:

As detailed above, many assessments are designed to assess how knowledge is applied and can therefore be more open-ended than assessments just testing a student's knowledge. It therefore gives scope for the exceptional student to give an exceptional response to get a high mark which comes close to 90+%. This is the reason why top students who have been used to getting + 90% from their own countries exam system may only get around 70% in the UK even if they are still maintaining their position as a top student.

 Academic Support:

There are normally lots of people available to help you with any academic support you need. Module and Programme Leaders expect to be approached for advice or help with problems. All students will have an identified Personal Tutor. Each School also has a Student Liaison Officer. There is also a Librarian with specific responsibility for international students. More general advice on study skills can be obtained from the Bolton Interactive Study Skills Tutorial Online (BISSTO)

 Welfare Support:

Universities understand that most students leave home for the first time to go to University. It is therefore important to provide support and advice to help students live independently for the first time. It is also understood that international students need special support given that they are also learning to live in a new country and often have higher pressures and responsibilities. The University of Bolton provides a one-stop-shop at the Student Centre in Eagle Mall, which is the first place to go if a student has any problem or requires information and help. There is also the Students' Union which can offer specialist advice for international students.

A common problem is that some International students feel reluctant to ask a stranger for help. The advisor's have a philosophy that no problem is too small to be supported; especially if it prevents a bigger problem emerging down the line.

 Social Support:

Again because so many students leave home for the first time, it is important for universities to provide a social environment for all their students. Students should find out what is available and especially the Sports Centre, the Students' Union and the International Society.

Some common cultural differences

Every student comes to university with their own specific cultural background and may sometimes have difficulty always understanding what is required of them. For an international student the differences in culture can often be significant but not always easy to recognise at the first. Detailed below are some of the common confusions that can arise. However, it is not possible to cover all circumstances that might arise so also pay attention to the general tips (link to "how to cope with cross cultural issues) given below on how to cope with the differences.

 Disagreeing with your Lecturer

If you are being given information by your lecturer that does not make sense to you, then you are expected to ask them for clarification. This is the case even if you think the information is incorrect. Lecturers expect to be challenged by their students and may sometimes even present incorrect information to check whether their students are alert. It is obviously important to be polite but a statement like "How can what you have just told us be correct given …….." is totally appropriate.

It is also not seen as a weakness for a student to ask for clarification. Indeed, the opposite is more likely as lecturers much prefer students to ask for clarification as they go along. You are not expected to understand everything at once but you are expected to take responsibility for what you have not understood.

Depending upon the size of the class, you may be able to do this during the lecture or alternatively, if the class is too big, afterwards.

 Answering questions

In British culture, it is normally expected that you give the answer to a question first and then the reasons. However, In many other cultures it is more common to give the reasons first and then the answer. However, if you do this in the UK you run the risk of people thinking you don't know the answer and are just talking for the sake of it (we call it "waffling"). Many British people don't understand that this is a cultural difference and can show impatience by interrupting which can be very distressing for the person doing their best to answer correctly.


All students will know that it is wrong to take someone else's work and present it as their own. However, in some cultures, it is considered disrespectful to presume to explain an expert's ideas using different words. However, at university, students are expected to show that they are able to understand and interpret other people's work. If it is felt that the idea can only be expressed in the exact words of the original author, then these words much be shown as quotes. In all cases, whether you are using the idea or the precise words, the source must be correctly referenced.

Another common problem for those who are writing English as a second language is that they will transpose whole sentences directly from text books. This can happen by mistake as students have subconsciously memorised a sentence they have just read when starting to write. However, this will be picked up when the work is submitted into the Turnitin software so students need to check themselves using Turnitin that this has not happened.

Group projects can be the cause of another misunderstanding. A group project will typically involve students working together to get results. The results are then written up. It is critically important that the write-ups are done individually by each student to demonstrate their own understanding of how the project was done and the significance of what was achieved. Students who copy any element of what another student has done for their write up will inevitably get a zero mark.

Students also need to be aware that the Turnitin software will also pick up anonymous material that is available on the web.

 Being Creative

Given that British education has a focus on how one can apply information, you may often be asked to do some work in an area you do not feel you know enough about. For instance, design projects is an example where you just have to have a go – and there is rarely just one right solution. The more experience you have, the better you get - but you only get better by making mistakes. British students tend to be more confident in this area (sometimes too confident!) while some international students may feel that it is showing arrogance to try and do something that they do not know enough about. There is a balance to be made between these two extremes which is what University education is all about.

 Work and Play

Many students who come from a knowledge-based education system have been accustomed to the idea that the more one studies, the better one performs. This is not strictly true for the British HE System which is designed to build up on students' confidence and social skills. This is why the best students are often those that have an active social life through getting involved in many of the extra curricula activities that a university can offer. In this way, they get experience of interacting with others, managing time, being focussed, organising events and making decisions. All these help them to not just perform well in their studies but also perform well in their future careers.

The Students' Union: This is a very good place to start to get involved in outside activities. International students should understand that the Students' Union is not a political organisation and is funded by the University to both represent students, provide advice and to put on social events. All students are members and the University expects students to use the Student Union services fully.
The International Students' Society is another good place to meet people and get involved. The Society organises a range of subsidised trips and events.

Other Common Cross Cultural Confusions

 Use of "yes" and "no":

A lecturer may say "So, you haven't done the assignment". A UK student would answer "no" meaning "no, I have not done the assignment". Some international students will say "yes" meaning "yes, you are right, I have not done the assignment".

 "No" means "No":

If a British person says "no" to something they normally do mean "no". This can sometimes be an issue when one student is trying to ask another out on a date. Similarly, when someone tells you that something cannot be done (ie a University Officer) it will mean that it can't be done and this is not an opening bid for further negotiations.

 Shaking heads sideways:

In the British culture, this means "no" or "I disapprove" while in other cultures it means "yes" or "I approve".

 Intention v Commitment:

In some cultures, a statement that someone will do something means "I would like to do this and will do it if it is possible" while to a British person it means "I can and will do it".

 Time Keeping:

Time management is an important survival skill in the West and so people expect others to keep to agreed timings. They consider it very disrespectful if people are late (e.g. for a meeting).

 Relationships Building:

In many cultures, it is important to develop some sort of personal relationship before embarking on collaborative work. In the British culture, personal relationships tend to develop during or after implementing a shared task.

 Formal Greetings:

Many cultures consider it a basic courtesy to formally shake hands with colleagues and friends at the start of the day. This is not normal in British culture where hands may only be shaken just once; when people first meet ! For many students, shaking hands is considered too formal to do amongst themselves.


Many international students find the use of "please" and "thank you" within British Culture to be very insincere. However, the use of these words are really just to tool to signal to someone , a shopkeeper for example, that the recipient does not consider themselves to be superior to the shopkeeper. If these words are not used, then the shopkeeper will feel that they are not being respected. In the UK, people tend to use other words such as "I would be really grateful" or "I am very grateful" to indicate a deeper meaning.

 Receiving Gifts or Favours:

In many cultures, it is polite to refuse an offer of a favour or a gift at least once in the expectation that the offer will be made again. In the UK, the offer will normally only be made once. For those who are uncomfortable accepting immediately, they can try saying something like "Thank you. I am very grateful but I couldn't ask you to do so much for me".


The British culture places a lot of emphasis on privacy. If someone turns down an invitation to socialise, it may be assumed that they prefer to be on their own. It is therefore up to them to make the next move if they do want to socialise. Generally, the British like people to knock and wait to be invited to enter a room and to ring up in advance of a visit.

 Fairness v Favours:

In UK society, favours are really only given when someone has a personal right to make a favour (e.g. personally giving something to a friend or someone in need). It does not apply when someone is in a professional capacity where the emphasis is on fairness. If a student asks a professional to do them a special favour and they are not able to extend that favour to everyone else in the same position, then they will not be able to do it for you – even if they are a friend or your need is great. In some cases, showing favouritism in this way could loose someone their job.

Tips on how to cope with Cross Cultural Issues

Listed above are just a few examples of many many differences that exist between British an other cultures. Of course there are even more when one considers that, at University, interactions take place between lots of different cultures. It is just not possible for anyone to be able to anticipate all the specific differences that may emerge. However, there are some basic rules that will help students cope with most situations.

 Reflect Back:

The golden rule is to " REFLECT BACK". If you are uncertain about what has been said to you, reflect back what you have been told in your own words: "Are you telling me that I have to do this before I can do that …." , "Are you asking me to do this now or when I have done that …..".

 Keep it simple:

Keep your communications simple and explicit until you are confident with the person. Once you know someone well then it will be easy to discuss, enjoy and laugh about the differences.

 Keep an open mind.

If someone has said or done something that has upset you, consider that it is more likely to be a misunderstanding than not. Talk to people you are confident with to see if they can explain what has happened. If you are still no wiser, you might like to approach the person concerned, explain what you think happened and why it upset you and then ask for their response.

 Pay attention to what is being said:

In British culture, on the whole, people say what they mean. Advisors often complain that some international students are able to understand the advice but refuse to do so and then go and try and get a different answer from someone else. Bargaining or applying pressure rarely has a positive outcome!


Cultural differences exist for a reason and reflect the codes of practice that are especially relevant to a particular society. They are particularly relevant to a university community that thrives on different ways of looking at things. Being different is not wrong.

 Language issues:

Often, even though your standard of English is high, you may find that the accents make it nearly impossible for you to understand what is being said. This normally ceases to be a problem after a few weeks. If you explain that you are an overseas student having difficulty with an accent, people will be understanding and repeat what they have said more slowly. If you continue to have difficulty with your English, then seek from your Tutor or Student Liaison Officer as additional support can be made available. British people are typically very poor at learning other languages and have considerable respect for those who can manage in another language; they will respect you even more for taking action if you have a problem.

Coping with cultural change

Anyone moving into a new environment is likely to experience a cultural change of some sort – even if it is just moving colleges or starting a new job. There are different ways of doing things that everyone else seems to understand and there does not seem to be any rules to follow. This can often make you feel awkward and inept.

For international students, the impact can be much larger. In particular, they can experience "cultural shock".

In simple terms, when someone has to absorb a lot of new ideas, new impressions and new ways of doing and saying things, the brain can feel a bit overloaded. Some information is not properly digested and goes into a holding area of the brain. However, if left too long in this holding area, one starts to feel anxious that there is something at the back of your mind that has not been done but you don't know what it is. In time, this might have an effect on the student's self confidence.

This feeling normally goes after a few weeks but things can be made worse if a student encounters other problems. The student may find that they do not have their normal self-confidence to deal with these problems (e.g. If a student finds the new course work more challenging than expected, or have a problem with their accommodation or finances that they cannot easily resolve or they have had a difficulty encounter with another student). They then start to have self-doubt about their ability to cope.

In some cases, students start to feel very isolated and then withdraw. This is the worst thing to do as the main remedy to culture shock (see below) is to digest all this new information; often through interactions with other students.

Below are a few tips to help you through culture shock:

 Learn about some of the obvious differences:

Find outabout some of the obvious cultural differences you are likely to meet in Britain. You may also find it useful to read the section explaining what is expected when you take a British degree.

 Reflect on your new experiences:

If you find something new that you do not understand, try and explore this at the time – or talk about it later with friends. If you are feeling anxious at the end of the day, try to spend some time thinking about what it might be. Just recognising what it is will make a big difference.

 Get out and about:

Normally, the more you socialise with other people, the quicker things will start to feel less strange.

 Expect differences:

Sometimes the students who have the most problems are those that do not expect there to be differences. For instance, a European Exchange student may think that as they are European and know about University that they will not meet any differences. When students meet differences they are not expecting, they only see them within the context of their own culture and so feel very negative about them. Negativity does not help at all !

 Be Positive:

Cultural differences are fascinating and there is normally an interesting explanation for them – and sometimes there just isn't. Be open minded about why they may exist. Talking about cultural differences can be a good way of breaking the ice - it encourages people to think about why they do something a particular way and that in turn provides interesting insights into how different societies behave. In the long term, an understanding of cultural differences will be an invaluable skill given that most students will almost inevitably be working in a multicultural environment in their future careers.

 Be Kind to Yourself:

Appreciate that you will not be operating as effectively as you might expect until you have got used to your new environment. If you find that you are starting to feel anxious and isolated, then make an appointment with a student counsellor.

The Good News

Some international students may find that the differences in the style of teaching and learning in the UK are so different that they do not feel that they will ever be able to perform to the high level they are used to. This fear is quite common, especially at the start, for students who are coming from an education system which is more knowledge based. Such students may find that they are only getting 50% grades when they are used to 90%. However, as such students get used to the differences, their stronger knowledge base means that they are able to get the benefits of both types of education systems. As a result, they are often able to shoot ahead during the later stages of a degree programme to resume the top position they had been used to.