What are UK universities like?

Photo of students working and laughing

If you are dreaming about studying in the UK and wondering what UK universities are like, keep reading. There are 165 public universities in the UK and whilst generalisation is a dangerous game to play there are some attributes that are universal in student life in the UK.

What is social life like at UK universities?

Societies form the backbone of student social life in the UK. These are clubs and organisations run through the universities by the Students Union. There are student societies for sports, hobbies, politics, religions, entertainment, activism and even nationalities. No matter who you are or what you enjoy doing you will find others who share your interests!

An important part of British culture is pub culture. Your university will almost certainly have a pub on campus, and there will be many more nearby. The pub is a popular place to socialise. Do not worry if you do not drink alcohol – pubs serve non-alcoholic beverages.

It is legal for anyone aged 18 and over to drink alcohol in the UK and many home students are excited that they are able to buy and drink all the alcohol they want. This is most evident during the first week at university, better known as Fresher’s Week.

Some students use Fresher’s Week as an excuse to drink loads of alcohol, take illegal drugs and have sex. Others prefer not to do any of these things and would rather focus on adjusting to their new surroundings and making friends.

You may find Fresher’s Week overwhelming and exhausting, which is very normal. Many home students feel the same way. However, it only lasts one week, and by the second week of university you will find that everyone has calmed down significantly.

This is not to say that students will not be drinking, doing drugs, or having sex once Fresher’s Week is done – some will. Many others will not. If you do not enjoy these things you will not be alone, so do not worry that you will have to do things you dislike just to fit in at a UK university.

Do international students have the same university experience as home students?

University is a similar experience for home students and international students in most regards. After all you are all going to be taking the same classes, living independently and making new friends. However, there are also some noticeable differences between international students and home students.

The most obvious difference is that home students tend to visit their families frequently. Many are only a few hours’ journey from home, so they will spend weekends and holidays with their friends and families. If you live on campus or in a shared accommodation it can get pretty deserted. It also means that it’s a bit harder to form friendships with them.

Home students also typically hold jobs. Many are paying their own way through university. While international students can usually work in the UK, their work hours may be severely restricted.

Finally, some home students take a very casual approach to university. For example, you may hear a home student complain that they are paying too much money for university while also proudly saying that they never go to lectures or do their homework.

For some (but certainly not all!) students, university isn’t just about studying – it is about moving away from home, going to parties, making new friends, and thinking about growing as a person. This nonchalant attitude is by no means universal, but you will come across it. Just remember there are plenty of students who relish the chance to study something they are passionate about.

What are classes like at a UK university?

UK universities emphasise critical thinking and self-motivated learning. You will only spend a few hours a week in the classroom, but you will be expected to do lots of reading on your own time. Depending on your subject you may also have labs, practical workshops and work experience as part of your curriculum.

Your lecturers and professors expect you to ask questions and even challenge what they are teaching you. They will address you by your first name and look you in the eye when speaking to you. Some may even hang out socially with their students in the student bar!

UK universities value critical thinking and curiosity. This is most evident during exams. If you simply repeat everything that your professors have said on an exam, you may get a bad mark. Instead, you should use what you have learned as a jumping-off point and add your own opinions and analysis to your arguments.

Exams in the UK are typically marked like this:

  • 50-59% is a passing grade
  • 60-69% is passing with merit
  • 70% and above is passing with distinction

Many international students come to the UK with the goal of earning distinction on their exams. However, this is very, very difficult to do.

Distinctions are only awarded to students who have produced truly extraordinary work that has dazzled their professors. Therefore try not to feel bad if you do not achieve distinction. It does not mean that you are a bad student or that you did not work hard enough.

What is living at a UK university like?

Most students live in university housing (or “uni halls”) for their first year. You will live with a few other people and while you will have your own bedroom, you will share the kitchen and common area with your flatmates.

These halls are self-catered, meaning that you will have to buy your own food and household goods like kitchen equipment and bedding. We recommend using UniKitOut to sort out your household goods.

Many students do not live in university housing after their first year. This is often because the uni halls do not have enough space for second- and third-year students.

A common choice, especially for home students, is to rent a flat with a group of friends. However, this option can be uncomfortable for international students who do not have a big group of friends or who do not want to live in a place that hosts lots of parties.

If you would prefer a quiet room to yourself, private university housing companies like Unite Students provide safe, modern housing. Private university housing is designed for students. It typically comes with good wifi and 24-hour security.