Why UK Education and Universities?

Why UK Education and Universities?

Note from editorial team: This is the first non-US article in Indonesia Mengglobal. Going forward, we will gradually expand our coverage to include educational opportunities around the world.

My name is Kevin and I am and undergraduate student currently studying Chemical Engineering at the University of Cambridge. In this occasion, I would like to introduce UK education system and why UK education is considered as one of the best in the world.

As an international student, I believe every one of us would like to continue our education in the best possible institution. When I graduated from SMA, I was faced with various choices, starting from the closest, Singapore all the way to the farthest, Canada. The need to make such an important decision prompted me to consider my choices very carefully and thoroughly. This time, I will not compare UK education with other countries’ education system but I will try to share my personal view on UK education itself and why I chose the UK.

Based on its geography, the UK is divided into four big chunks: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Each of them has its own education system but at the higher level (i.e. university level), the standard and system are pretty much the same. I will look into England’s education in particular because it is by far the most popular destination for international students.

Why is the UK not a popular destination?

The USA has more than 8,000 Indonesian students and Australia has even more, approximately 12,000 Indonesian students but the UK only has approximately 2,000 Indonesian students. What’s the problem? To understand this, we need to dive into the difference between primary education system in the UK and in Indonesia.

The Palace of Westminster, Elizabeth Tower and Westminster Bridge

Education in the UK consists of 13 years of primary education, which is equivalent to Indonesia’s 12 years of primary education (SD, SMP, SMA). UK’s final 4 years of primary education consists of 2 years of GCSE (not to be mistaken with IGCSE) and 2 years of A-Level. As a result, we can see that Indonesia’s education system is lacking one year of primary education. This unfortunately has put out a lot of students’ interest in continuing higher education in the UK since UAN certificate is not recognized as a proper qualification by the UK universities. The understanding is that lacking one year of education equals to a lower quality and a shallower understanding of the subjects. As the result, Indonesian students who don’t have A-level or IB diploma under their belts are required to take one or they can study foundation programme offered by international colleges around the UK. There are 2 problems:

  • A-level or IB programme requires two years to learn, hence adding up the total length of primary education to 14 years. This is considered time-wasting for Indonesian students.
  • Foundation programme only requires one year to finish but it has the disadvantage that not all universities accept foundation diploma. All top universities in the UK (including Cambridge, Oxford, UCL and Imperial) don’t accept foundation diploma, hence the holders are forced to take up course in a mediocre university.

However, I strongly disagree with the first problem about wasting too much time in the primary education. If we look closer into the A-level and IB curriculum, although it is true that their math and sciences are easier than Indonesia’s curriculum, if we think about it carefully, what does the program actually teach? It teaches students about critical thinking, receiving instructions in a second language (in this case English), and writing essays – all the stuff that international students require in their university life. My point is 2 years of investment is worth it because we are using this time to learn something new, not repeating stuff. We are preparing ourselves to become ready when the demand to perform comes.

Yes it is true as well that those who are taking A-level and IB after SMA are still in high school and they aren’t in university yet. By the time your friends are in their third year, you will only be a fresher (first year university student) in a UK university. Of course there is a catch behind this. EVERY undergraduate degree, including law and engineering with the exception of medicine, only takes three years to finish while most universities in other countries require four years. If that’s not satisfying yet, all master degrees in the UK only require ONE year to finish, while other universities in other countries take at least 2 years to finish. So two students – one studies in a US university directly after SMA and the other studies in the UK via A-level/IB before university – will graduate with master degrees in their hands at the same time.

In fact, you can actually save time if you come from an international school which uses the A-Level or IB curriculum. To get a master degree in the UK requires only 4 years while in the US it may take more than 5 years.

So, how about quality?

So far I have been looking at the timeline, but how about the quality? Top students are seeking top universities and the UK has it. In the QS 2013 World University Ranking, among the top six universities in the world, four of them are from the UK. This includes Cambridge (#2), Oxford (#5), UCL (#4) and Imperial College London (#6). If we look at the statistics by THE World University Ranking 2012/2013, there are 31 UK universities in the top 200. This means that at least 31 out of a total of 115 universities (approximately 27% of all UK universities) are world class universities! Of course every ranking table has their own subjectivity and methodology, but it is a good starting point.

As everyone has been putting their attention into the EU economy, the UK is one of the countries in Europe affected by the crisis. This is because EU is the main trading partner for the UK. Hence, the direct effect of this is universities nowadays receive less endowment from the government. University of Cambridge currently is the highest receiver of the UK government endowment and it only receives £ 4.3 billion (Approx. US$ 6.45 billion) compared to Harvard that receives US$ 31.7 billion in the same year. With so much less resources, University of Cambridge can actually fight equally and be at the top of the university ranking in 2011 and was moved to 2nd after Harvard in 2012 (According to QS World University Ranking). This means that UK University has something more that can’t be bought with money, which I will leave to the readers to think about. Again, I may be biased because of the generalization I made.

Probability of admission

Some of the readers probably are doing their studies in universities currently. There is a question I would like to ask specifically to US university students: Did you guys apply to the university directly or did you guys enter community college and then transfer to the university? Maybe some of you did enter the university directly and some of you didn’t. The point I am trying to make here is there is a low probability of entering top university in other countries. From my personal experience, it is pretty impossible for me to apply to Stanford, MIT, Harvard, or even UC Berkeley with my UAN certificate unless I am a genius with a few international scientific Olympiad medals under my belt.

Top universities in the UK are generally friendlier with students with less achievement but have potentials to grow. Let’s take myself as an example. I never top any class during my SD-SMP-SMA life nor joined any science competition. This shows that I am actually just a mediocre or even a very normal student, same as most of us. So what makes me enter Cambridge? It is because of the admission system. Cambridge University together with other top UK universities are famous for their interview schemes. Not a phone interview but a face-to-face interview by the lecturers/professors/students whom the prospective students are going to interact with during their learning and teaching activities. You will probably think, “well, you need to be good enough to be invited for the interview”. That’s not true either. Cambridge invites more than 90% of their applicants for an interview; Asian prospective students are invited for interview in Singapore, while the rest are being interviewed in the UK. This shows how serious UK admission system is to try to choose the very best without looking too much into the grades. That explains why in the end, a mediocre student like me can end up at such a good university, and I believe everyone of you deserve a place at a top university, learning with top academics and earning top experiences.


London Underground (also known as the Tube)

At the very end, even though I have explained and discussed so much about the UK education system, this doesn’t mean that it is the most perfect place to go. There are other factors that we need to consider. One of them is culture. UK culture is very much different from our home culture and also other cultures. UK culture is a very conservative one where traditions are held respectfully and graciously during special occasions (the most recent one being the Diamond Jubilee celebration). Very much like other western countries, drinking culture is a trend amongst British youth. Also, British accent is one cool thing that you will learn when studying in the UK! There are many aspects of the culture that I can talk about but to sum it up, a friend of mine who used to study in the USA once told me, “In the USA, everything is so big and spacious. In the UK, everything is so tiny but efficient”. Culture is one of the most important factors you need to consider before choosing where you want to study. You may be studying at a very good university in the UK, but if you don’t enjoy the culture, you won’t feel happy about it and if you are not happy, you won’t be able to perform.

How much does a UK education cost? 

I place the cost last in the article because in my opinion, cost shouldn’t be a barrier for anyone to study overseas. However, it is a factor to consider. From my observation, the currency exchange rate of the pounds sterling (GBP) has decreased significantly since 2006. During my SMA years (2006-2009), I remembered that £1.00 is equal to approximately Rp.20,000. However, since then, it has decreased so much and reached its lowest point last year (2011) at Rp.14,300. It is currently priced at Rp.15,500. Looking at the tuition fee, generally speaking, the cost of an engineering undergraduate degree can reach up to £30,000 per annum including accommodation and average stipend. On the other hand, the tuition fee for a non-lab undergraduate degree such as law or business degree, only costs a maximum of £20,000 per annum including accommodation fee and average stipend. This shows how competitive a UK education has been over the past few years. Furthermore, every single international student in the UK is supported by the NHS (National Health Service) which provides their health welfare at zero cost (i.e. FREE). There are also a lot of scholarships and grants available that target only international students. Each university will have their scholarship page. Many of them will redirect their international student applicants to the sponsors immediately during the application process. Some of the Indonesian companies/foundations that actually provide scholarships for UK universities are: Jardine Foundation, Ancorra Foundation, Chevening scholarship, etc. More information about scholarships can be found here.

In conclusion, what I am trying to deliver here is just the tip of the iceberg. There are still many things that you can research on. I hope this article can increase the enthusiasm of the readers who will open their horizons about UK education. Always aim high and I am looking forward to seeing more Indonesian students coming to the UK to achieve something great for Indonesia in the future.

Photos taken by the author himself.

Kevin is currently reading Chemical Engineering undergraduate degree at University of Cambridge, UK, with Jardine Scholarship. He was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia. He is passionate about manufacturing, energy and FMCG industry.
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