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Friday, 14 March, 2003, 12:08 GMT
The term higher education is used to describe education above A-levels and their equivalents. It is provided in universities and colleges of higher education, as well as some further education colleges.
Those gaining the required A-level points - or equivalent - can join a degree course. There are now more than 100 universities in the UK providing higher education.
Alternatively, there is the Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE) or the BTec Higher National Diploma (HND).
In the UK, all universities are governed by royal charter or by Act of Parliament, and enjoy academic freedom. They appoint their own staff, decide which students to admit, provide their own courses and award their own degrees.
The number of universities has increased considerably since 1992, when polytechnics were given degree-awarding powers and were allowed to call themselves universities.
First degree courses are mainly full-time and usually last three years. However, there are some four-year courses, and medical and veterinary courses normally require five years.
Universities offer courses in a wide range of subjects, including traditional arts subjects and science and technology. Many universities have close links with commerce and industry. First degrees in most institutions have the title Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc).
Special qualifications are awarded for bachelor degrees in engineering (BEng) and education (BEd). Where degrees are awarded with honours, these are divided into four classes: first (highest), upper second, lower second and third.
The Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE) is a two-year diploma usually intended to serve as a stepping stone to a degree course or other further study.
The BTec Higher National Diploma (HND) is awarded after two years' full-time, or three years' sandwich course or part-time study.
The target number of students entering higher education has been set at 50% of the under-30s by 2010.
The formal entry requirements to most degree courses are two A-levels at grade E or above (or equivalent); for HND courses, it is one A-level (or equivalent). In practice, most offers of places require qualifications in excess of this, with higher requirements usually reflecting the popularity of a course.
For admission to a degree, DipHE or HND, potential students apply through a central clearing house, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas). All universities and most colleges providing higher education courses in the UK are members of Ucas.
Applicants are supplied with an application form and a Ucas handbook, available from schools, colleges and careers offices or direct from Ucas, and may apply to a maximum of six courses/institutions. The application is completed in the final year of A-levels and must be submitted by mid-December - mid-October for certain courses and for Oxford or Cambridge entry.
Ucas sends the application to each of the chosen universities and colleges at the same time. Each one then decides whether to offer the applicant a place, usually made conditional on their getting certain exam grades.
Someone who gets no offers, or fails to reach the required grades, becomes eligible for what is known as Clearing - an attempt to match those without places to courses which have vacancies.
Most students who began full-time undergraduate courses at publicly-funded higher academic institutions in or after 1998/1999, or their parents or spouse, have to contribute towards the tuition fees for each year of the course.
The level of the contribution is means-tested. Those on lower family incomes get free tuition. The maximum contribution for those on higher incomes is £1,125 for 2003-04.
However, from 2006 universities will be able to charge different fees for different courses, with a maximum annual cost of £3,000.
The total amount will be payable after graduation, rather than at the start of each year, and will be deducted from income when graduates are on a wage of more than £15,000.
A means-tested maintenance grant of up to £1,000 a year is also to be reintroduced from 2004. Students with a family income of less than £20,000 will be eligible, with £10,000 or below being the threshold for the full grant.
Parental income is not taken into account if the student is 25 or over or has been self-supporting for at least three years before the start of the course.
The effect of the government's plans is less certain in other parts of the UK.
In Wales the Assembly has already decided to bring back a limited "learning grant" from the 2002-03 academic year, setting aside £41m for the purpose.
This is expected to mean grants of about £750 for poorer students from Wales - those whose "residual income" is less than £15,000 - wherever in the UK they study.
The Northern Ireland Assembly approves scrapping up-front tuition fees, but says this measure would be too expensive to support and would contravene equality measures because offering free tuition to all would benefit the wealthy more than the disadvantaged.
But, for now, 14,000 students from low-income families in Northern Ireland will be eligible for bursaries of up to £1,500.
The government decided that Scottish students should not pay tuition fees for the final year of a degree course, if it was a year longer than the comparable course in England and Wales - as honours degrees in Scotland typically are.
The fee is paid by the government in the additional or honours year - usually the fourth year. Students from elsewhere in the UK who are at Scottish universities however have to pay their own fees. This so-called "Scottish anomaly" proved highly contentious.
The government got the legislation through Parliament in 1998 only by promising an independent review of the working of fees.
They became a major issue in the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament. In the end, an independent committee on student finance - the Cubie Committee - was set up as a result of the coalition deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Among 52 recommendations, Cubie said tuition fees should be replaced with a system under which graduates would pay £3,000 once they were earning £25,000.
The Scottish Executive did decide to scrap up-front tuition fees for Scottish students at Scottish universities, with graduates contributing £2,000 to a fund for new hardship grants, starting to pay this when their earnings are at least £10,000.
There are some other exceptions to the rules. Postgraduate trainee teachers are exempt from paying tuition fees, for instance.
Medical students do not have to pay in their fifth year. Those on courses such as nursing and midwifery get government bursaries to meet the fees.
There are other special cases, in particular students who fall within the "gap year" scheme announced on 14 August 1997 to cater for those who had intended to take a year out of education before going to university.
Students can also get help with living costs by being eligible for a support loan, with an interest rate linked to inflation, from the Student Loan Company.
The system of paying back the loans depends on the student's income as a graduate, the threshold being £15,000.
For those students who need further assistance, an extra discretionary loan of £250 a year may be available from what are known as the Access Funds.
Local education authorities can supply information, as well as the student support/student services office of the college or university students' union.
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