Officially, all universities in the country are equal in status. But they differ greatly in reputation and public image. In general, the older the university is, the higher its status. So the most prestigious are the ancient ones – Oxford and Cambridge – followed by long-established ones such as London, Manchester and Edinburgh.
Some of this is based on tradition and snobbery. In fact, each university has strengths and weaknesses, and sensible students make their choices according to their own particular needs and priorities.
Young gentleman from public schools can enter Oxbridge. This name denotes the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, both founded in the medieval period (*Oxford in the 12th century, Cambridge in the 13th century). They are federations of semi- independent colleges, each college having its own staff, own dining hall, library and chapel, and contain accommodations for at least half of their students. The students are taught either one-to-one or in a very small group (known as “tutorials” in Oxford and “supervisions” in Cambridge). They work at university level, doing research work in physics, chemistry, mathematics, cybernetics, literature, modern and ancient languages, art and music, philosophy and psychology.
Both Oxford and Cambridge libraries are legally entitled to a free copy of every book published in Britain. Before 1871 all Oxbridge colleges were single-sex (for men mostly). Since the 1970s the majority of colleges admit both sexes.
The Open University is Britain’s largest university, with some 160,000 people currently registered on its various programmes of study. The OU is an international university, teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students in other European Union countries. Its courses are also offered through partnerships in Hong Kong and Singapore Universities.
Further education (FE) in Britain means education after GCSE and GNVQ exams taken around the age of 16. It includes courses of study learning to A-levels which students take at their school or six-form college. Some students go straight to college of further education.
FE college such as Ealing Tertiary College (ETC) has two main attractions:
1) there is a wide choice of A-level subjects, including Law, Computing and Sociology;
2) there is a much freer, more adult atmosphere than at school.
Student who are not happy with the academic study involved in A-levels, and who want to do a vocational course which leads quickly to a job, may also go to FE college. FE colleges offer all sorts of work-related courses, from Car Mechanics to Dental Nursing, which give students NVQ (National Vocational Qualifications).
Then there are those who leave school at the age of 16 and go straight into a job, but later on realize the need for higher qualifications. Quite a lot of people in their mid-20s or older come back into education at an FE college and take a one-year Access course; this gets them into university, where they are often more successful than younger student because they are more serious and focused.
FE colleges like ETC also offer English-language courses for foreign visitors; in some way they are a better learning environment than specialist language schools, as the visitors mix with all British students around them.