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Understanding the Eligibility Requirements to Study in the UK as an International Student

UK university students

UK university students

The right course at the proper skill level allows you to take advantage of the points-based migration system in addition to post-study work visa.

A major section of international students choose the United Kingdom as their study abroad destination, the apparent reasons being the reputation of the UK education system as well as benefits like post-study work (PSW) visa. Statistically, the UK just accounts for one per cent of the world’s population, but eight per cent of the global scientific community reside in the country. In addition to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (collectively referred to as STEM), the country excels in other fields as well including creative arts, business and law.

Statistical data from HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) and UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) reports that in the academic year 2018-19, around 70 per cent of the international student community in the country were from non-EU countries. Chinese nationals make up the largest subsection of this community, followed by India and the USA. The study also reports that the international student population in the country jumped by five per cent when we consider the period corresponding to the academic years between 2011/12 and 2017/18.


Before we jump into the nitty-gritty about the entry requirements for the major course categories, the situation demands a brief elaboration about the UK education system, especially from the perspective of a student who is looking to study abroad. Applications to a UK university can be processed through an authorised consultant or the UCAS portal, and you must consider the tuition fees, associated living expenses, location of the institution within the UK, accommodation options as well as any scholarships that they may offer. Most international students must possess a valid student visa to pursue higher education in the country.


The following discussion focuses on three main levels of higher education in the UK: bachelor’s (or undergraduate-level), master’s (or postgraduate-level) and research-level. Subcategories may exist within each section, in which case they will be specified and elaborated as such. Bear in mind that these specifications conform only to international students who wish to study in the UK and not for UK nationals.


Eligibility criteria for bachelor’s courses: The UK requires you to have 13 years of pre-university education before an application can be made to an undergraduate-level course in the UK, but in some cases, they accept 12 years of education as well. So, if you have successfully cleared Higher Secondary level (in countries like India or Bangladesh) or A level or a foundation year and possess an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) score of 6 to 6.5 or equivalent (tests like TOEFL, PTE etc.) to prove your English language proficiency, you can apply for a bachelor’s course in the UK.

Alternative options exist for those with lower English language proficiency level: Higher National Diploma (HND), foundation courses and Diploma of Higher Education. The IELTS requirement oscillates between 5 and 6 for these courses (based on the university) and the other prerequisite is a Higher National Certificate/ BTEC National Diploma/ one to two UK A-levels or Scottish Highers.


Eligibility criteria for master’s courses: To pursue a postgraduate-level course, UK universities require that the applicant possesses a bachelor’s degree either from an educational institution in the UK or abroad. Some universities need the student to have a bachelor’s degree in a field directly related to the master’s program that they have chosen, but that’s not always the case. English expertise at the level of IELTS 6.5 or equivalent is needed in most cases but specific requirements vary based on the university.


Those who do not meet the IELTS requirement of 6.5 or above can apply for a pre-masters course, for which a score as low as 5 (or equivalent) is accepted by some universities. Some institutions may demand two to three years of business experience for admission to MBA (Master of Business Administration) courses, in addition to the above requirements, but exceptions are there. The availability of 1-year master’s programs in the UK deserves a special mention here as it allows you to save time and money, start your career early and gain more work experience than those who take 2 years to complete a postgraduate program.


Entry requirements for research courses: A research-level degree in the UK can be broadly categorised into three: PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), MPhil (Master of Philosophy) and MRes (Master of Research). Award of a PhD typically depends on extensive research in the specific area chosen, followed by an elaborate thesis document, which must withstand scrutiny in front of an expert panel. PhD is usually completed under supervision and typically lasts three years if pursued full time. An MPhil follows along the same lines, but usually lasts one-year full time and is suitable if the subject you have chosen does not offer the scope for a full PhD. On the other hand, an MRes focuses on the intensive study in the field of art, humanities and/ or social studies.


Entry requirements for research-level degrees follow the same pattern, even though specific conditions may vary slightly based on the specific university you choose. You must complete a bachelor’s degree with upper second class or higher as well as a postgraduate course along with an IELTS score of 7 or equivalent.


UCAS interview: After you apply for admission to a UK university, you might get an invitation through UCAS Track or the university or its representative, to attend an interview. This screening is primarily done to assess your passion for the course as well as the reason to choose the UK university. This is your chance to impress the admission authorities to ensure you get shortlisted, so make sure you practise beforehand. Go through the frequently asked questions, make sure you arrive at the venue early, dress professionally and maintain a good body language.


UK student visa: An international student aged 16 or above requires a Tier-4 (General) student visa to pursue higher education in the UK. Applications can be made for student visa three to six months before the beginning of the course, subject to the following conditions:

  • You should possess an unconditional offer letter from a licensed Tier-4 sponsor
  • Able to speak, write, read and understand English at the required proficiency level
  • Financial statements to prove that you have enough money to pay for the course and meet living expenses
  • If you are aged 16 or 17, proof of parental consent is also required

Application for the UK student visa can be made online with the following supporting documents: a valid passport, proof of funds, Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS, also referred to as an unconditional offer letter) reference number and assessment documentation. A tuberculosis screening as well as Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) clearance certificate might be required in some circumstances. If you don’t have citizenship in the country you are applying from, or if you are a minor (under 18 years of age) or have dependents accompanying you, additional documents have to be produced accordingly.

A Tier-4 (General) student visa costs £348 per application. Any additional dependents cost £348 per person as well. Payment can be made online/ via a demand draft (DD)/ direct cash submitted to the visa application centre or Standard Chartered Bank (selected branches only).

Obtaining a biometric residence permit (BRP) from the UKVI (UK Visas and Immigration) also forms an essential part of your application for the UK student visa. An appointment must be booked with the UKVI office to scan your fingers and to take a digital photograph of your face.

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