University Colleges: What Are They?

With more and more students studying abroad for a full degree, nowadays close to 4 million worldwide, there is some confusion about the difference between the terms university and college. 

It becomes even more difficult with the term university college, which is being used in quite a few countries across the globe, ranging from Australia, Canada and Denmark, to the Netherlands, Norway, UK, the US, and many other countries. Very often it does not refer to the same type of institution. So, the question is what does or does not constitute a university college in Europe?

The term university college is used in a number of countries to denote institutions that offer tertiary education but do not have full or independent university status. A university college is often part of a larger university.

This is, for example, the case in Ireland, the UK and the Netherlands. Examples in these countries include University College London, University College Oxford in the UK and University College Utrecht, Amsterdam University College and Leiden University College in the Netherlands.

University colleges system in the UK and Ireland

In the case of the British and Irish University Colleges, more often than not they date back to the foundation of the mother institution. University College London is the oldest constituent college of the University of London. Similarly, University College Oxford dates back to 1249.

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The National University of Ireland and Queen's University Belfast were based on the UK university college system, and were both set up in 1908 before the establishment of the Republic of Ireland and having roots in the earlier Queen's University of Ireland which was also a university college-type system.

The founding university colleges of the National University have since been raised to the status of universities — as they were considered for many years before statute recognition — but the system still maintains its overall federal status, e.g. University College Cork and University College Dublin. 

Queen's University Belfast initially had no university colleges and the first university college was created in 1985 (St Mary's) and second in 1999 (Stranmillis), these two institutions previously were associated with the university, offering its degrees since 1968.

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University colleges system in the Netherlands

University College Utrecht, which is part of Utrecht University, is the oldest in the Netherlands, but was only established in 1998, whereas Utrecht University dates back to 1636. 

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Since then more University Colleges were set up, like Amsterdam University College, University College MaastrichtUniversity College Fryslân, Leiden University College, and The Roosevelt Academy. The Dutch University Colleges were set up as so-called Honours Colleges, mostly offering liberal arts programmes to talented students looking for an extra challenge than a regular undergraduate degree would offer.

The major distinguishing factor is that students follow a very broad curriculum in Liberal Arts and Sciences and choose their major in the second year of the programme, whereas in most other undergraduate degrees in the Netherlands students specialise into a certain discipline or subject area from the day they start their degree.

To be admitted students must go through a more rigorous selection process including interviews than at most other universities and pay a surcharge on top of the regular tuition fee to safeguard the international character. This surcharge is extra for students from the EEA and varies from EUR 500 to EUR 2,055, excluding the costs of room and board that some charge.

Another distinguishing factor is the size of classes. At the university colleges in the Netherlands, teaching tends to be done in small groups and all students live on campus, which in itself is very unusual in the Netherlands as most higher education institutions do not have on-campus halls of residence.

University colleges in Scandinavia

In Scandinavia, a university college denotes an independent institution in Sweden and Norway that provides undergraduate and postgraduate education (Bachelor and Master degrees). It is somewhat similar to a Fachhochschule in the German-speaking world.

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In Sweden, the main difference between an institution with full university status and a university college lies in the larger variety of academic subjects offered at a university, and the traditional right of the university to award doctoral degrees in any field. Institutions like Mälardalen University and Gotland University are examples of Swedish university colleges.

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In Norway, the difference between a university and a university college is that a university offers at least four doctorate programmes; any Norwegian university college could, therefore, become a university. Some university colleges have evolved into institutions more or less similar to small universities in the last decades.

The distinction between universities and university colleges have been gradually phased out through legislative reforms in 1995 and 2005, the two types of institutions are now governed by the same law, they have the same structure and the same obligation to provide research-based education. One example of university college in Norway is Oslo University College.

In Denmark, university colleges are mostly specialised universities, offering professional bachelor's programmes in areas such as teacher training, engineering, business, nursing, health, nutrition and social work. Examples are University College Northern Denmark and Metropolitan University College Copenhagen.

Clearly, a university college in one country is not the same as that in another country. So, when choosing an undergraduate or graduate degree programme in Europe, be sure to look a bit further than the obvious and inform yourself well.

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