UK University colleges and Institutes

What are the University Colleges and Institutes? It is a fair question for a student, parent, or sponsor to ask. The University Colleges and Institutes are part of the university sector in the United Kingdom and, like any University, they offer mainly degree-level courses - bachelors’ degrees, masters’, and doctorates.

The next question could then be: why aren’t they just called "University"? Again, this is a perfectly understandable question. The simple answer is that, with a few exceptions, the University Colleges and Institutes do not usually award all their own degrees. Rather like the Colleges and Institutes which make up the University of London in this respect - or even Oxford and Cambridge - some, at least, of the degrees, especially at postgraduate level, are likely to be awarded by a large University with which the College or Institute is associated.

University Colleges and Institutes tend to be much smaller than typical British Universities: student numbers are generally in the 2,000 - 4,000 range, though a few have bigger numbers. Not many Universities have fewer than 10,000 students; the majority have much higher numbers.

But it is not only a matter of how many students the Colleges or Universities have. It is also the origins of the University Colleges and Institutes that makes them somewhat different from British Universities, old or new. Typically, the present University Colleges and Institutes have developed and grown from Teachers’ Colleges.

Until about twenty years ago in most cases, they would have been exclusively concerned with the professional training of teachers. Then they started to offer other courses and degrees provided by University Colleges and Institutes is broadly comparable to any University, the only difference being that these institutions do not normally provide degrees in such subjects as Law, Engineering, and Medicine, which require large Departments or Faculties that are beyond the scale of the smaller University-level institutes.

The particular strengths of the University Colleges and Institutes, the ways in which they are positively different, have a great deal to do with their origins. In terms of the subjects and courses offered, there is likely to be an emphasis on those subjects that are closely associated with the School curriculum - Arts or Humanities subjects like English Language and Literature, History and Geography, Art and Design, and Music, as well as Sciences such as Biology, Environmental Science, and Mathematics.

Nowadays, of course, there are likely to be many other courses available, ranging from Psychology, Sociology and Economics - which might also owe their beginnings to the former teacher education curriculum - to Business Studies, Computer Science, Horticulture, Health and Nursing, for example, as well as other subjects which have gradually been added to the original teacher education-based curriculum.

Teacher education itself, of course, almost certainly remains as a strong component of the whole array of courses taught by a University College or Institute. Whether initial teacher education or in-service teacher education, professional training for the classroom is something which these institutions have specialised in since their foundation, and no University is likely to do it better. Also associated with the smaller institutions’ origins is their strong continuing pastoral tradition and care for the individual student.

Perhaps, as E.F. Schumacher* argued over twenty years ago, there is virtue and merit in what is small: sheer size, especially if it means a loss of what is most human and personal, is not something to be sought for its own sake. The relatively small University Colleges and Institutes have all the facilities and equipment of the bigger Universities, including libraries, laboratories, computer centres, performing arts and art and design studios and so on, as well as, most importantly, highly qualified academic staff.

Lecturers and tutors have to be well-qualified because they teach degree courses that are in every way equal in standard to those taught at the United Kingdom’s one hundred or more Universities. They are, in most cases, those same Universities’ internationally-recognised degrees which are awarded to students, whether they are degrees of Coventry, Leeds, Southampton, Surrey or another University. So, students, parents, and sponsors need have no doubts about the quality or standing of the degrees that the Colleges award.

But the University Colleges and Institutes offer more. Many of them have particularly attractive campuses that are more green than grey! Some of the major University Colleges and Institutes are a little outside city and town centres in attractive, safe settings with ample residential accommodation on leafy campuses that are very different from the city centre clusters of tall buildings that are more typical of the big Universities of Britain’s industrial cities.

For the student - and for the reassurance of parents - University Colleges and Institutes offer a University-level education of two, three or more years at moderate cost in an environment that is on a human scale and one in which the newcomer quickly comes to know his or her way around.

Students, parents, and sponsors should be absolutely clear, and confident that whether the University College is Bath or Worcester, King Alfred’s or St. Martin, Chichester or Ripon and York St. John, or one of the others, quality assurance is guaranteed by the same national Quality Audit agency which carries out quality audits of all institutions in the University sector on the same basis.

International recognition and comparability with all other British degrees are not in question, therefore, while the graduate of a University College or Institute will also have had the benefit of a distinctive, somewhat different higher education experience, though nevertheless one with traditional British standards.

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