Studying in the UK

The United Kingdom (UK) includes Northern Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland. It has long been the main University destination for Irish students opting to study abroad. UNESCO’s latest figures show that over 10,000 Irish citizens were studying in the UK in 2016.

Over 400,000 students from 200 countries go to the UK every year to attend higher education (that is more than 15% of the total student population in the UK, so if you decide to go, you will most likely not be the only student in your course to have just moved to the UK!)

  • Northern Ireland is an attractive option to many Irish citizens as it is so easily accessible. For example, the University of Ulster is bigger than any university in the south, with a number of campuses spread out across Ulster, and the Open University (Distance learning, online courses) is also based in Northern Ireland but does not require you to live in Northern Ireland.
  • Scotland is particularly attractive for Irish students as there are no tuition fees for undergraduate courses.
  • England is home to a number of the highest ranking, and most prestigious, universities in the world such as University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and University College London.
  • Wales has 8 universities, where tuition fees and the cost of living generally are lower, and the quality of life higher, compared to England for example. Cardiff is ranked as the most affordable University City in the UK in 2019.

As Irish students have been choosing to study in the UK in high numbers for some time, many Irish school guidance counsellors are familiar with their application system, UCAS, and will be able to give good advice on the process of applying to universities in the UK. Students and adults wanting to do their own research will also find the UCAS website very informative as it covers most aspects of studying in the UK.

Brexit (the UK’s decision to leave the EU) is likely to have implications for students wanting to study in the UK, but it remains to be seen exactly what those implications will be. SUSI (the Irish student financing body) [] provide up-to-date information about funding decisions related to Brexit.

If you want to compare UK qualifications with Irish qualifications, see the Qualifications can cross boundaries leaflet from Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) that gives a rough guide to comparing qualifications in the UK and in Ireland. The leaflet shows how qualifications are organised and how they relate broadly to each other through the different qualifications frameworks, including the European Qualifications Framework.

UCAS - Searching and Applying for courses in the UK

UCAS is the UK admissions service for higher education. Like the CAO system here in Ireland, UCAS manages all of the applications for full-time undergraduate courses at over 350 universities and colleges across the UK.

Searching for courses

Students can use the UCAS website to search for courses and institutions in which they may be interested and then compare entry requirements, course content, assessment procedures etc.

Explore what the different colleges have to offer. The UCAS site also has a range of information to help with your decision including an information area for parents.

Students should then contact the particular institution to enquire about Irish Leaving Certificate entry requirements, fees and any other requirements such as aptitude testing.

Check out the College Open Days – see if it’s possible to arrange to be there, or alternatively, find out if they be at Higher Options in Dublin?

Note: The application process for UK courses starts earlier than in Ireland so you need to begin looking at courses at least 12 months before you plan to start studying.

Another online platform where you can search for courses is the British Council website. The site also has general information about living in the UK including accommodation and working while studying.

To further help you decide on what course(s) to apply to, you can compare different courses and universities based on student satisfaction with regards to teaching, student supports, assessment and feedback etc. See:

Applying through UCAS

Applications for study in the UK are made online on There are some key dates to remember, depending on what and where you want to study in the UK:

  • 15 October 2019 for 2020 entry to any course at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, or for most courses in medicine, veterinary medicine/science, and dentistry. Note: Applicants can only apply to Oxford or to Cambridge, but not to both.
  • 15 January 2020 for 2020 entry to the majority of courses in the UK.

While UCAS is similar to the CAO, the application process is very different so spend some time researching the specific application process and requirements. Students can apply for up to five courses in a normal UCAS application.

Although you applying through UCAS, universities judge applicants based on more than just exam results. The UCAS application also involves:

  • Personal Statement
  • Academic Reference (and providing information about Work Experience if applicable)
  • Some courses require additional assessment(s) for admission e.g. an aptitude test or an interview, or for medical students, tests such as UKCAT, BMAT or HPAT UK.

The Personal Statement is an essay style exercise of about 4,000 characters (approx. 1.25 A4 pages). It is an opportunity for students to argue why they should be offered a place on the courses they have applied for. The Personal Statement typically addresses:

  • Why you chose to study in this particular area
  • Evidence of skills you have developed
  • Details of your interests and achievements to date
  • Relevant work experience you may have completed

UCAS gives some advice for writing a personal statement here.

Most UK colleges require an academic reference. This is usually supplied by your school principal. It is an opportunity for your school to vouch for your participation and achievements both in education and non-academic activities to date and on your suitability for higher education in the environment you have chosen. See more information about academic references here.

Converting Leaving Certificate points to UCAS Tariffs

UCAS tariffs system is a points system used for entry to higher education in the UK.

UCAS Tariff points (Source: UCAS)

Leaving Certificate - Higher Level (Ireland)

















Leaving Certificate - Ordinary Level (Ireland)












Most UK Universities require six Irish Leaving Cert grades at Higher Level as an alternative to three UK GCE A levels. However, you need to contact each individual university you want to apply to to ask about their specific requirements for Irish applicants.

Late applications - UCAS Clearing

UCAS Clearing is the UK equivalent of the CAO Available Places. UCAS clearing is available from July-September each year.

In the UCAS Clearing process, colleges may accept lower grades than listed during the clearing process so contact admissions and ask. However, you will need to submit the UCAS application form, personal statement and academic reference.

You will receive a “clearing” number and you can enter the details of your chosen course into the clearing section of the UCAS application.

Fees and cost of living in the UK

The tuition fees and costs of living vary significantly across the UK.

These are the maximum tuition fees for Irish undergraduate students in the UK:

  • Scotland: No tuition fee (for first time undergraduate students)
  • Northern Ireland: up to £4,160 per year
  • Wales: up to £9,000 per year
  • England: up to £9,250 per year

See UCAS for more information about the maximum tuition fees in the UK at present by clicking here.

Also check the specific tuition fee for each course you are considering as the above figures are the current maximum fees colleges can charge per year.

Tuition fees are not the only expense when studying in the UK - you also need to consider accommodation and living costs. The cost of living as a student in the UK, according to the British Council, is estimated to be approx. £12,200 per year, or just over £1,000 per month (not counting tuition fees).

However, every student is different and you should calculate your own budget based on your personal circumstances. You can find a useful budget calculator on the UCAS website.

According to research from the Natwest Student Living Index, Cardiff is the most cost-effective city in the UK for students, followed by Bristol (2nd) Leicester (3rd) Southampton (4th) and Manchester (5th). London is the most expensive city for students in the UK. You can research the cost of living for students in the UK further here.

Funding Opportunities

Depending on your income you may be eligible for a maintenance grant under the Irish Student Grants Scheme (SUSI), but this may not include tuition fees. Check your eligibility on SUSI by clicking here.

Note that whilst students commencing studies in the 2019/20 academic year are guaranteed to keep their funding arrangements for the full duration of their studies, the regulations are due to be reviewed and may change post-Brexit.

See the following links for information about other UK student finance options:

Some student loans are only available to students from the UK and the rules and regulations concerning student fees and loans may change with Brexit. However, bear in mind that if you are an EU national who has been settled in the UK for over 3 years you will be classed as a home student and may be able to apply for further financial support for living costs.


There are some scholarships which focus specifically on supporting students from the Republic of Ireland, who want to study in Northern Ireland:

  • The All Ireland Scholarship Scheme, funded by JP McManus, provides significant financial support to high achieving students from challenging economic backgrounds.
  • The North South Scholarships, from Universities Ireland, offers financial support to students from the Republic to undertaking postgraduate studies in Northern Ireland.

Other websites with information about scholarships and bursaries are:

Working while you Study in the UK

You may be able to work while you study to support yourself financially. Make sure to check the current rules and regulations, and if you are in receipt of scholarships and funding, you may need to check if there are any stipulations from the funders in relation to work.

Information about visas, working and related regulations is available at the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA).