Difference between university and colleges in the UK

Students walking around Sheffield

Navigating an unfamiliar educational system that has its own processes, customs and vocabulary can be one of the most challenging parts of being an international student. For those studying – or hoping to study – in the UK, the difference between different types of institution can be confusing – for example, high schools and colleges. So, you may be asking yourself, colleges vs universities; what's the right option for me? Are colleges and universities the same? Ask no more and get the answers you need from our helpful guide to the difference between university and colleges.

What is the difference between secondary school and college?

The first thing to note is that in most parts of the UK, high school is referred to as secondary school. The term high school is more frequently used in Scotland, which is where the term originates. The main difference between high school and college in the UK is that one is part of the statutory education system and the other is part of the optional further education (FE) system.

Another key difference between high school and college is the age of the students. For the most part, high schools offer statutory education for students from ages 11 to 16, although some also have sixth form centres, which offer courses for students aged 16 to 19. At a further education college, most of the students have already completed their statutory education and are over the age of 16. The colleges also offer adult education courses and therefore will also have adult students of all ages. They give students over the age of 16 the chance to take A Levels or GCSEs they may not have had the opportunity to pass at high school.

What level of education is offered in secondary school and college?

High schools typically only provide students with the opportunity to study for GCSEs and A Levels, although some may also offer alternative qualifications such as the International Baccalauréat. 

Further education colleges offer a far wider range of qualifications and often focus on less academic courses of study, such as skills-based courses in areas such as computer skills and craft skills.

Whereas high schools are focused on the needs of students and their parents, FE colleges tend to be a hub for community learning and will offer services such as taster courses and evening courses to get more adults interested in continuing their education.

More recently, some FE colleges have begun to offer degree-level courses in partnership with universities, for students who want to access higher education in a more relaxed environment that is local to them.

A different experience

There are some distinct differences in the learning experience offered by high schools and colleges. High schools are mainly focused towards the education of minors and as such have a more prescriptive atmosphere in which students often have to wear a uniform and are not permitted to leave the school site during the school day. Additionally, while high school students have some say about the subjects they take, they also have to take a number of core subjects, such as english, maths and sciences.

In contrast, FE colleges offer a more relaxed environment in which students are encouraged to take more responsibility for their education. FE students choose their own study programme and are only expected to be on campus during class times. Students can choose from GCSEs, Higher National Diplomas and A Levels to BTEC courses and skills diplomas. People come to FE colleges at all stages of life to gain new skills or pursue hobbies, from learning to speak a new language before going on holiday to cake decorating.

Knowing the difference between high school and college is very useful when it comes to choosing the next phase of your study in the UK, or filling in application forms in which you have to describe your education history. It’s definitely worth taking note of the differences and keeping them to hand as you do your research.


Why are UK universities are the best?

UK universities offer creative and challenging environments that push their students to do their very best. Thanks to the high standard of UK education many universities in the country are featured in the world 100 top universities. 

When it comes to international study programmes many UK universities offer a variety of courses with expert support and advice for international students. 

Which is better college or university?

You may be asking yourself; are universities and colleges the same and which is right for me? Which is completely understandable. Choosing whether college or university is better for you depends on the level of study you are at. Colleges and universities in the UK both cater to the needs of international students and offer great support for your abroad studies.

College is for students aged between 16-18 who are taking their A-Levels. Colleges in the uk for international students require you to do an international A-Level, this runs alongside the traditional A-Level programme for UK students. In addition to choosing a subject, English language learning is also included. 

University is where you will do to study an undergraduate degree, this can be for anyone over the age of 18. Most universities offer a pathway programme for international students which prepares you to progress to a degree at the university campus.

What do I need for college in the UK?

To attend college in the UK as an international student there are some entry requirements. Most colleges ask for five GCSE's of grade C or above. You will also need to show component English language skills by taking one of the commonly accepted tests of English ability:

  • TOEFL - test of English as a foreign language
  • IELTS - international English language testing system