College or University: What's The Difference?

If you’re due to graduate from sixth form and would like to continue with your studies, you may be wondering whether to apply for a degree at a higher education college or university.

There are a few key differences between these two institutions and it is essential to understand them before you submit your UCAS form.

1. Types of course

A university in UK is a recognised educational organisation which has the legal right of issuing higher education degrees. Typically, study programs at UK universities lead to either an undergraduate or postgraduate course.

College, in contrast to university, is an educational institution that offers further education courses leading to specific degrees or qualifications. These normally include:

  • Diploma
  • Foundation Degrees
  • General Certificate of Secondary Education GCSE
  • Higher National Certificate HNC
  • Higher National Diploma HND
  • International Baccalaureate.

College courses in UK are designed to teach students to reach a certain level of skills and knowledge in a particular field of interest which makes them able to get a job or gain academic preparation to enter university.

In contrast to the university which tends to be equally focused in practice and theory, college courses in UK pay more attention to provide you with more practical skills. That is mainly because most students in UK choose the college to become employable in a short time.

Usually, a further education course in college lasts for one to two years of full-time studies. During this time, you spend most of the time being taught how to apply your skills in a real environment. If you already have a job or for other similar reasons you have limited time, colleges in UK offer various flexible study programs and part-time studies.

2. Time management

The main difference between higher education colleges and universities is the degree to which you’ll be responsible for your studies.

At university, you’ll be expected to undertake a considerable amount of individual study by reading up on your subject when you’re not in lectures.

It's anticipated that you'll take full responsibility for your studies and won’t rely heavily on the teaching staff.

While your tutors and lecturers will be there to help you when you need it, the emphasis will be on helping you to learn to understand your chosen subject for yourself.

This means that, unless you excel at independent study and effective time management, university study will pose a challenge.

3. Individual support and attention

HE colleges tend to make the teaching of their undergraduates their top priority while large universities tend to devote much of their time and resources to their research work.

Colleges therefore adopt a more student-centred approach to their education.

At a HE college, you'll be likely to benefit from a greater number of classes and lectures and your class sizes will be small in comparison to those of a university.

This means that you’ll receive more contact time with your tutor and classmates and since your tutor will get to know you on an individual basis, he or she will be able to provide you with personalised help and support.

You’ll also be presented with countless opportunities to offer your thoughts, ask questions and engage with your fellow students.

If, however, you enjoy being hidden amongst a crowd of students and like to be the silent observer of the classroom, you will revel in the anonymity that lectures and classes at large universities grant you.

4. Assessments

At university, you will be given long time periods to complete your assignments.

If you’re studious, this can be advantageous. However, if you’re prone to falling behind with your studies, it will be all too easy for you to fall into the habit of leaving your assignments until the last minute or worse still, forgetting about them altogether.

At college, you’ll be provided with regular reminders with regards to your assignment deadlines and will have less chance of failing your degree based on the non-submission of your coursework.

5. Cost

If you’re unable to afford the cost of going to university full-time and need to study at an institution that offers a flexible schedule so you can earn while you learn, you may find HE colleges to be better adapted to your needs.

The cost of higher education in UK is relatively high and most students actually rely on student loans which leaves them with a significant debt to be paid back after they get their degree (currently around £55,000).

Unfortunately, this is one of the reasons why secondary school leavers feel put off going to university. Many prefer to accelerate their education and find a job right away so they can start earning money.

College, on the other hand, comes at a much lower price, and you will find there is a wide range of merit-based and need-based bursaries offered to them and most of them don’t need to be paid back.

Depending on their personal circumstances, college students can claim additional funds to cover education-related costs and they’re only charged a small rate of interest.

If the cost of attending university exceeds your budget altogether, higher education colleges may be a more cost-effective alternative.

6. Recognition

Large universities tend to be better recognised than small HE colleges.

This is because large universities have a greater number of global alumni and their research facilities often appear in the news.

You may therefore find that attendance at a university is better able to enhance your career prospects.

That said, you're likely to receive more detailed and valuable careers advice from HE college tutors who know you well and are hence able to provide meaningful and personalised guidance on your next steps following graduation.

7. Flexibility

Higher education offers a more flexible approach to learning than universities, where you are expected to attend lectures every week.

While there will be some classroom time, students also spend some of their week gaining hands on training and experience.

This is especially true if you are studying a vocational course or apprenticeship.

If this appeals more to your style of learning, then you may want consider your options at a higher education college.

8. Small class sizes

Intakes at higher education colleges are much smaller than university, so you can enjoy a more close-knit, quieter setting in the classroom, which gives you the opportunity to talk to everyone (rather than just a few!).

If you're not a fan of large crowds and a busy campus, then a higher education may be a more preferable environment for you.

Further information

For more tips and advice on applying to university or college, please see: