A University Foundation Programme is an intensive full-time course that offers international students (mostly) an alternative route to British University degree courses from the other more recognised routes of A Levels or International Baccalaureate (IB). These programmes are also sometimes known as International Foundation Programmes.

Students can join a University Foundation Programme in September or January in most schools and choose from a variety of pathways allowing entry to almost all undergraduate degree courses.  There are two main types of programmes to study:

English Language Based Foundation Programme

This is a programme that is specially designed for international students whose first language is not English; a large proportion of the programme is to improve English language skills. Alongside this, subject specific units are taught which will aid the students preparing for their degree course.

Subject Based Foundation Programme

The programme is designed to specialise in subject areas which will provide the student with the knowledge and understanding to start a specific degree programme. Alongside this students study English Language to satisfy the IELTS requirements of the particular institution they wish to apply to. The range of subjects on offer is considerable, from accounting to zoology with plenty in between. There are even now good medicine University Foundation Programmes courses giving access to degree courses for those aspiring to be doctors.

Who applies for University Foundation Programmes?

University Foundation Programmes are aimed generally at more mature international students whose aim is to enter university after one year’s study. The majority of students come from an international background, giving a wonderfully diverse blend of cultures, which adds much to the course and friendships that can come from enrolment.  They may have a first-class educational background in their own countries, but their qualifications do not meet UK university entrance requirements.

British students with good GCSE grades who have attempted A or AS levels but did not achieve the grades required to enter the university course of their choice may also join the programme at some institutions.

Key Facts about University Foundation Programmes

  • Start dates. Courses generally have two possible start dates per year, September (to June), and January (to August). The January start allows students from overseas to join the programme if their country’s school year runs from January to December unlike the UK schools who have September to August. The August completion date still allows students to enter their chosen university in September/October along with their peers who completed the the course in June.
  • Modular Structure Students study several modules within a course structure with most, if not all, having a core element along with optional subjects chosen to complement the degree course being applied for. University Foundation Programmes are modular, with examinations taken at the end of each section of the course. Re-sits of papers are possible although some universities do not accept re-sits as part of their entry requirements, so students should consult their prospective university first to see if this might be an issue.
  • English support. For those international students who require it, University Foundation Programmes also include English Language tuition to prepare students for the IELTS examinations.  This ensures that students meet university English Language entry requirements (see also our advice article on English as second language qualifications). There are two variants of the IELTS.
    • The IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. For the academic IELTS, the test is for people applying for higher education or professional registration in an English speaking environment. It reflects some of the features of academic language and assesses whether you are ready to begin studying or training at a high level. You will need this to gain entry to university.
    • The general IELTS is for those who are going to English speaking countries for secondary education, work experience or training programmes. It is also a requirement for migration to Australia, Canada, New Zealand as well as the UK. The test focuses on basic survival skills in broad social and workplace contexts. You are therefore almost certain to have to sit this test (or a similar one) prior to arrival on your University Foundation Programme.
  • Accreditation. University Foundation Programmes are either accredited by a college or university or linked to universities through progression agreements established between the universities and the providers. They are taught to level 3, in other words to an A level equivalent standard for purposes of uniformity and accountability of providers. Some schools operate specific agreements with universities. Students should be wary of these if they are not 100% sure that the university to which their school is linked is definitely the one they want to attend. The reason being that these courses are not transferable and will only get you into the one university or a small cohort of universities. This will limit your options severely when applying through UCAS.
  • Acceptance by universities. University Foundation Programmes are accepted by over 75 British Universities and Colleges and are now increasingly being accepted by universities overseas including in the USA, Canada and Australia. They are also accepted in some European countries, but not too many at the moment. Its continued acceptance in Europe could become less certain after the UK eventually leaves the EU and would be a factor to consider when deciding to embark upon any University Foundation Programme.Some schools run partnerships with overseas schools, so that you might be able to undertake your chosen  course in your own country before coming the UK to study the degree course you have selected at university. This option might be worth considering if finances are an issue and funding for your University Foundation Programmes on top of the degree course might be a problem. Check with the school/college offering the programme to see if this is an option available to you.Some University Foundation Programmes offer automatic progression onto a university they are linked to, as long as the entry requirements are met. If the entry requirements are below the required standard students will need to apply through UCAS, so long as the units they have studied are transferable.

Other advice

  • There is no single website which lists all the University Foundation Programmes  available. Try the Preparation Courses Portal , Study in UK, or just Google 'International Foundation Programme'
  • The best way to identify the difference between English language based  and subject based University Foundation Programmes is by looking at the course content: the units should be explained clearly. Many institutions will have admissions tutors, registrars or student support staff to help you navigate through the process if you are uncertain.
  • Research into the various programmes at as many schools/colleges as possible. This will ensure the student has a complete understanding of the course and the institution, after which the student is then able to make an informed choice.
  • Most schools/colleges  assess their programmes by percentage, for example: Pass 40%+, Merit 60%+, Distinction 70%+. It is wise when doing your research to establish the result level your university will require, and to find out the school's recent success rates of placing its students into the universities you are interested in.
  • As a part of the process of choosing a school, check carefully what student support is available. Good support will make the move from overseas much smoother. Aspects to consider should be: help with accommodation, help with visa application and possible help with funding/finance.
  • Check with the university what the entry requirement will be for IELTS (or equivalent English test - see our article on English as Second language qualifications) and ensure that the school where you wish to study the University Foundation Programme can deliver an IELTS teaching programme that will guarantee that you will reach the university’s requirements.Whilst not a hard-and-fast rule, it takes roughly 300 hours of tuition to move up half an IELTS point; round about 1 term. You can use this as a benchmark, knowing your starting IELTS score and the IELTS entry requirement of your chosen university. University IELTS requirements vary from as low as 4.5 overall to 7.0 on some programmes.

As with so many choices that need to be made when selecting the right course, research is key. Contact the school/college offering the University Foundation Programme, check their website to glean as much information as you can. Speak to their admissions staff and try to visit the place. Is the course right for you? Is the school/college right for you? Will you enjoy the location of the school/college? These questions are as important as well as more subject and course specific questions.


Tuition fees only, depends on the programme £11,000 - £19,000. Business – Medicine.

Accommodation, can vary depending location (London more expensive) £4,000 - £12,600 (London) approx.


City schools tend to be more expensive than suburban or country schools meaning that accommodation and food costs could be a factor that needs to be taken into account when planning the budget for your study. Some schools have students fully integrated within their community, whilst others keep their University Foundation Programme students separate from the main college. Taking a Foundation Programme within a  a university community allows students to get a taste of university life, but can be seen as throwing quite young students (16 or 17) in at the deep end when possibly leaving home for the first time. If you tackle a University Foundation Programme at an actual university rather than a school, beware that in many cases you are not going to be located at the university campus and that this may affect where you will be taught and where you live. This might not be what you expected!

Article written by Mike Oliver, Principal  and Rachel Caine, Director of Partnerships and careers, Brooke House College.

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