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United-Kingdom-England:Higher Education

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Overview United Kingdom (England)

Contents

United-Kingdom-England:Political, Social and Economic Background and Trends

United-Kingdom-England:Historical Development

United-Kingdom-England:Main Executive and Legislative Bodies

United-Kingdom-England:Population: Demographic Situation, Languages and Religions

United-Kingdom-England:Political and Economic Situation

United-Kingdom-England:Organisation and Governance

United-Kingdom-England:Fundamental Principles and National Policies

United-Kingdom-England:Lifelong Learning Strategy

United-Kingdom-England:Organisation of the Education System and of its Structure

United-Kingdom-England:Organisation of Private Education

United-Kingdom-England:National Qualifications Framework

United-Kingdom-England:Administration and Governance at Central and/or Regional Level

United-Kingdom-England:Administration and Governance at Local and/or Institutional Level

United-Kingdom-England:Statistics on Organisation and Governance

United-Kingdom-England:Funding in Education

United-Kingdom-England:Early Childhood and School Education Funding

United-Kingdom-England:Higher Education Funding

United-Kingdom-England:Adult Education and Training Funding

United-Kingdom-England:Early Childhood Education and Care

United-Kingdom-England:Organisation of Programmes for Children over 2-3 years

United-Kingdom-England:Teaching and Learning in Programmes for Children over 2-3 years

United-Kingdom-England:Assessment in Programmes for Children over 2-3 years

United-Kingdom-England:Organisational Variations and Alternative Structures in Early Childhood Education and Care

United-Kingdom-England:Primary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Organisation of Primary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Teaching and Learning in Primary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Assessment in Primary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Organisational Variations and Alternative Structures in Primary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Secondary and Post-Secondary Non-Tertiary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Organisation of General Lower Secondary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Teaching and Learning in General Lower Secondary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Assessment in General Lower Secondary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Organisation of General Upper Secondary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Teaching and Learning in General Upper Secondary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Assessment in General Upper Secondary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Organisation of Vocational Upper Secondary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Teaching and Learning in Vocational Upper Secondary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Assessment in Vocational Upper Secondary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Post-Secondary Non-Tertiary Education

United-Kingdom-England:Higher Education

United-Kingdom-England:Types of Higher Education Institutions

United-Kingdom-England:First Cycle Programmes

United-Kingdom-England:Bachelor

United-Kingdom-England:Short-Cycle Higher Education

United-Kingdom-England:Second Cycle Programmes

United-Kingdom-England:Programmes outside the Bachelor and Master Structure

United-Kingdom-England:Third Cycle (PhD) Programmes

United-Kingdom-England:Adult Education and Training

United-Kingdom-England:Distribution of Responsibilities

United-Kingdom-England:Developments and Current Policy Priorities

United-Kingdom-England:Main Providers

United-Kingdom-England:Main Types of Provision

United-Kingdom-England:Validation of Non-formal and Informal Learning

United-Kingdom-England:Teachers and Education Staff

United-Kingdom-England:Initial Education for Teachers Working in Early Childhood and School Education

United-Kingdom-England:Conditions of Service for Teachers Working in Early Childhood and School Education

United-Kingdom-England:Continuing Professional Development for Teachers Working in Early Childhood and School Education

United-Kingdom-England:Initial Education for Academic Staff in Higher Education

United-Kingdom-England:Conditions of Service for Academic Staff Working in Higher Education

United-Kingdom-England:Continuing Professional Development for Academic Staff Working in Higher Education

United-Kingdom-England:Initial Education for Teachers and Trainers Working in Adult Education and Training

United-Kingdom-England:Conditions of Service for Teachers and Trainers Working in Adult Education and Training

United-Kingdom-England:Continuing Professional Development for Teachers and Trainers Working in Adult Education and Training

United-Kingdom-England:Management and Other Education Staff

United-Kingdom-England:Management Staff for Early Childhood and School Education

United-Kingdom-England:Staff Involved in Monitoring Educational Quality for Early Childhood and School Education

United-Kingdom-England:Education Staff Responsible for Guidance in Early Childhood and School Education

United-Kingdom-England:Other Education Staff or Staff Working with Schools

United-Kingdom-England:Management Staff for Higher Education

United-Kingdom-England:Other Education Staff or Staff Working in Higher Education

United-Kingdom-England:Management Staff Working in Adult Education and Training

United-Kingdom-England:Other Education Staff or Staff Working in Adult Education and Training

United-Kingdom-England:Quality Assurance

United-Kingdom-England:Quality Assurance in Early Childhood and School Education

United-Kingdom-England:Quality Assurance in Higher Education

United-Kingdom-England:Quality Assurance in Adult Education and Training

United-Kingdom-England:Educational Support and Guidance

United-Kingdom-England:Special Education Needs Provision within Mainstream Education

United-Kingdom-England:Separate Special Education Needs Provision in Early Childhood and School Education

United-Kingdom-England:Support Measures for Learners in Early Childhood and School Education

United-Kingdom-England:Guidance and Counselling in Early Childhood and School Education

United-Kingdom-England:Support Measures for Learners in Higher Education

United-Kingdom-England:Guidance and Counselling in Higher Education

United-Kingdom-England:Support Measures for Learners in Adult Education and Training

United-Kingdom-England:Guidance and Counselling in a Lifelong Learning Approach

United-Kingdom-England:Mobility and Internationalisation

United-Kingdom-England:Mobility in Early Childhood and School Education

United-Kingdom-England:Mobility in Higher Education

United-Kingdom-England:Mobility in Adult Education and Training

United-Kingdom-England:Other Dimensions of Internationalisation in Early Childhood and School Education

United-Kingdom-England:Other Dimensions of Internationalisation in Higher Education

United-Kingdom-England:Other Dimensions of Internationalisation in Adult Education and Training

United-Kingdom-England:Bilateral Agreements and Worldwide Cooperation

United-Kingdom-England:Ongoing Reforms and Policy Developments

United-Kingdom-England:National Reforms in Early Childhood Education and Care

United-Kingdom-England:National Reforms in School Education

United-Kingdom-England:National Reforms in Vocational Education and Training and Adult Learning

United-Kingdom-England:National Reforms in Higher Education

United-Kingdom-England:National Reforms related to Transversal Skills and Employability

United-Kingdom-England:European Perspective

United-Kingdom-England:Legislation

United-Kingdom-England:Glossary

The definition of higher education, according to Section 120 of the Education Reform Act 1988, is:  

‘education provided by means of a course of any description mentioned in Schedule 6 of the Act, that is, a course of a standard higher than the standard of courses leading to General Certificate of Education Advanced-level (GCE A level) or Business and Technology Education Council National Diploma or Certificate’.

Higher education courses can be provided by different types of institution: higher education institutions directly funded by Government through the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE); further education institutions; and with alternative (private) providers (see the articles on ‘Types of Higher Education Institutions’ and ‘Organisation of Private Education’.) The article on ‘Types of Higher Education Institutions’ describes the different types and the remaining articles in the chapter focus on the range of programmes and levels of study that feature in the system.

Higher education in England shares a number of characteristics and structural features with higher education in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. In all four parts of the United Kingdom, higher education institutions are autonomous self-governing bodies which offer degrees by virtue of their own degree awarding powers or the degree awarding powers of another institution. These degree awarding powers are recognised by the UK authorities (UK and Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies). Institutions are responsible for appointing and employing their own staff (see the chapter on ‘Teachers and Education Staff’). Grants for specific research projects and programmes are administered on a UK-wide basis through the seven UK research councils.

Within the context of institutional autonomy, some common approaches and frameworks are used. There is no system for the accreditation of institutions but the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) makes judgements on UK institutions’ capability to manage their own quality and standards and the UK Quality Code for Higher Education provides the definitive reference point for institutions (see the article on ‘Quality Assurance in Higher Education’). Reflecting these commonalities and shared missions, a number of sector-led bodies operate on behalf of higher education institutions across the UK. These bodies include:

  • Universities UK (UUK), whose members are the executive heads of UK institutions 
  • GuildHE, which along with UUK is a recognised representative body for higher education in the UK 
  • UCAS, which coordinates applications services across the UK  
  • Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), which collects data from higher education providers to support UK governments and higher education funding bodies in their regulatory and funding work 
  • Higher Education Academy (HEA), which offers accreditation for courses and wider professional development opportunities that support staff who teach and/or support learning
  • Committee of University Chairs (CUC), which represents the chairs of UK university governing bodies and develops and promotes governance standards for higher education in the UK.

There are also a number of differences, particularly in relation to Scotland, which has distinct traditions of higher education. More recently, since the late 1990s, the devolved administrations of Wales and Northern Ireland have had responsibility for education and policies in some areas have diverged. The most notable of these are tuition fees and student support, the funding of institutions and the related governance arrangements. Teaching in most subjects is now supported by tuition fees rather than by direct grant from the funding council (which in the case of England is the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)). On a year by year basis, specific priorities for the higher education sector are set out in the annual grant letter from the Minister for Universities and Science to HEFCE. Assessment of research continues to be undertaken on a UK-wide basis although there are differences in the way the four UK funding councils use the results to allocate funding for research infrastructure. See the article on ‘Higher Education Funding’.

Policy objectives: Conservative Government from May 2015 

Following the general election held in May 2015, a new Conservative Government took office. In its productivity plan, Fixing the foundations: creating a more prosperous nation, published by HM Treasury on 12 July 2015, the new Government set out actions to increase UK productivity growth across the next decade. These included the following commitments for higher education made with the aim of keeping the UK university sector competitive, and open to all who can benefit:

  • remove the student numbers cap so that anyone with the right qualifications can study at university
  • ensure the long term sustainability of investment in universities by replacing maintenance grants with loans for new students from 2016/17, while providing more cash in hand in real terms than has ever been provided to help students from lower to middle income backgrounds meet the cost of living while studying
  • introduce a new Teaching Excellence Framework to sharpen incentives for providing an outstanding education to students
  • allow institutions offering high teaching quality to increase tuition fees with inflation, to ensure that the universities sector remains well funded to compete internationally
  • open the higher education market to more new entrants to stimulate competition and innovation, increase choice for students, and deliver better value for money.

Also in July 2015, a revised grant letter for 2015/16 was issued, in which the Secretary of State notified HEFCE of the need to make further savings from the HEFCE teaching grant. This followed the announcement on 4 June by the Chancellor of the Exchequer of a number of measures to bring down public debt in the current financial year. 

In November 2015 the Government published a Green Paper (consultation document) with specific proposals building on its earlier productivity plan. Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice proposes to change the higher education landscape by:

  • refining plans for the Teaching Excellence Framework with a focus on better value for money for students, employers and taxpayers
  • increasing access and success in higher education participation for those from disadvantaged and under-represented groups
  • creating a new single gateway for entry and creating a create common system for all providers 
  • establishing a new Office for Students to promote the student interest and ensure value for money, and to reduce the regulatory burden on the sector.

The consultation runs until January 2016.

Policy objectives: coalition Government 2010 to 2015

Under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition Government, the major policy objectives for the higher education sector were: 

  • widening participation in higher education
  • making the higher education system more efficient and diverse.

Over its five-year term of office from 2010 to 2015, the Government implemented considerable reforms. Since autumn 2012, universities in England have been able to charge up to £9000 a year for tuition, subject to committing to more ambitious measures to widen access, agreed with the independent Director of Fair Access to Higher Education. This measure implemented proposals set out in the June 2011 White Paper, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System which took forward the recommendations from Lord Browne’s 2010 review, Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education: an Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance.

The priorities set out in the HEFCE grant letter for 2014/15 reflected both the Government’s ongoing vision for the higher education sector, as set out in the 2011 White Paper (see above), and stretched public finances. The latter resulted in reductions to the indicative recurrent teaching budget for 2014/15 and which incorporated the mainstreaming of Government contributions to access and student success budgets. In the context of these reductions, HEFCE was asked to continue to protect, as far as possible, funding for high cost subjects (including STEM), widening participation and small and specialist institutions. The grant letter confirmed the Government’s provision of additional student places for 2014/15 and the removal of student number controls from publicly funded HE providers from 2015/16. The grant letter also highlighted the importance of teaching quality and the need to develop mechanisms that protect and assure the quality of the academic student experience.

The grant letter for 2015/16, issued in January 2015, repeated the same priorities for teaching funding and HEFCE was asked to continue to protect, as far as possible, funding for high cost subjects, widening participation, and small and specialist institutions. The grant letter also confirmed the announcement in the 2014 Autumn Statement of the Government’s plan to introduce the first ever income contingent loan scheme for students undertaking masters’ courses from 2016/17. 

For an overview of recent shifts and trends in higher education in England, see HEFCE’s 2015 briefing and the Universities UK publication Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education 2015, the latest in a series which provides a summary of annual statistical data about the UK higher education sector in the context of the trends of the previous decade.

Legislative Framework

Higher education institutions in England are autonomous self-governing bodies. The structure of programmes is not regulated by law. Subject to the status of their degree-awarding powers, higher education institutions are free to design and offer such programmes and awards as they wish. However, all institutions structure their programmes along broadly similar lines (a three cycle framework), which conforms to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) qualifications framework. 

Quality assurance is not regulated by law. Higher education institutions are responsible for the approval of their own programmes and for ensuring that appropriate standards are achieved. They are judged on how well they fulfil these responsibilities and the effectiveness of their processes by the QAA (see the article on ‘Quality Assurance in Higher Education’). The main reference point for the QAA’s review work is the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. The Quality Code sets out the expectations that all providers of UK higher education are required to meet and provides them with a shared starting point for setting, describing and assuring the academic standards of their higher education awards and programmes and the quality of the learning opportunities they provide. 

Public funds for teaching and research infrastructure are distributed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), an arms-length body accountable to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). HEFCE was established under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992

The current arrangements for tuition fees for full-time undergraduate (first cycle) students operate under the Higher Education Act 2004. The Act brought about substantial changes to what institutions could charge, with the maximum annual amount prescribed by regulations made under the Act by the Secretary of State. The 2004 Act also established the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to promote and safeguard fair access to higher education for under-represented groups in the context of increased tuition fees. Changes to the regulations prescribing the maximum annual amount for tuition fees from 2012 were approved by Parliament in December 2010. Regulations made under the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 require that tuition fees are set at the same level as the maximum amount of loan support the Government makes available to full-time undergraduate (first cycle) students to meet the fees. Fees for postgraduate (second and third cycle) students are not regulated (see the article on ‘Higher Education Funding’). 

Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ)

Although not required by law to do so, all institutions design their qualifications in accordance with the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (FHEQ, available here), developed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and which forms part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. The FHEQ is intended to promote consistency across the sector by facilitating a shared and common understanding of the expectations associated with typical qualifications and ensuring that qualifications with the same titles are of an equivalent academic standard.

The fundamental premise of the FHEQ is that qualifications should be awarded on the basis of achievement of outcomes and attainment rather than years of study. 

The five levels of the FHEQ are numbered 4–8 (levels 1–3 are allocated to levels of education which precede higher education).

Qualification descriptors illustrate the distinct level of intellectual achievement for each level of the framework. These qualification descriptors describe the threshold academic standard for those qualification types in terms of the levels of knowledge and understanding and the types of abilities that holders of the relevant qualification are expected to have.

Subject benchmark statements make explicit the nature and characteristics of awards in a specific subject area and set out the attributes and capabilities of graduates in that subject. They exemplify what the generic outcomes set out in the qualification descriptors in the FHEQ might look like in practice.

The main types of qualifications are illustrated in the following table.

FHEQ Level
Corresponding FQ-EHEA cycle
Typical higher education qualifications within each level
8
Third cycle (end of cycle) qualifications
Doctoral degrees (eg. PhD/DPhil, EdD, DBA, DClinPsy)
7
Second cycle (end of cycle) qualifications

Masters degrees (eg. MPhil, MLitt, MRes, MA, MSc)

Integrated master's degrees (ed. MEng, MChem, MPhys, MPharm)

Primary qualifications (or first degrees) in medicine, dentistry and veterinary science (eg. MB, ChB, MB BS, BDS, BVSc, BVMS)

7

Postgraduate diplomas

Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) / Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE)

Postgraduate certificates

6
First cycle (end of cycle) qualifications

Bachelor's degrees with honours (eg. BA/BSC Hons)

Bachelor's degrees

6

Professional Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE)

Graduate Diplomas

Graduate Certificates

5
Short cycle (within or linked to the first cycle) qualifications

Foundation Degrees (eg. FdA, FdSc)

Diplomas of Higher Education (DipHE)

Higher National Diplomas (HND)

4

Higher National Certificates (HNC)

Certificates of Higher Education (CertHE)

(Adapted from QAA (2014). The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies, page 17)

The FHEQ has been self-certified as compatible with the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area (FQ-EHEA). Information on the process which was followed to verify compatibility is available here.

Note that the FHEQ is not a credit framework; for a description of the use of credit in English higher education, see the subsection ‘Branches of study’ in the article ‘Bachelor’.

Structure of the academic year

The structure of the academic year is not regulated by law. However, for funding and reporting purposes, the academic year runs from 1 August to 31 July.

The teaching year typically starts in late September/early October and ends in mid to late June. The year is traditionally divided by breaks into three teaching terms, although some institutions organise teaching along a two-semester system. A small number of institutions offer accelerated degrees which require student attendance for longer periods during the year.

For postgraduate (second and third cycle) students, the organisation of time varies. Where a taught master's programme has a duration of one year, this normally means a full calendar year, e.g. October to October. 

Teaching typically takes place between 9.00 a.m. and 6.00 p.m., from Monday to Friday, but may take place at other times. Part-time courses may be offered during the day or in the evening. Birkbeck, University of London, provides all its programmes through part-time evening study.


Information on legislation referenced in articles about England is available here. A glossary of terms can be found here.