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Types of Higher Education Institutions in Europe

So, you’ve decided you want to do a postgraduate program in Europe. Great idea! But did you know there’s more than one type of university in Europe? Here we take a brief look at some of the different types of higher education institutes available in Europe.


State & private universities

State universities (or public universities, as you may see them referred to) have their funding provided by the government. However, how beholden they are to this role depends very much on the country. For example in Germany professors are often seen as civil servants. Whereas, in the UK the government does not own the universities assets, and the employees (tutors and professors) are not seen in the same way. Public universities in Europe are often either free to students from countries in the EU, or have capped tuition fees, meaning they are (usually) cheaper than private universities.

Private universities are less common than public universities, and the number of them varies from country to country. For example, in Greece and Finland, there are no private universities, whereas in other European countries like Turkey and Germany, there are over 70! Private higher education institutions can charge much higher fees, but often specialise more than public universities. Many of them focus on particular subject areas, such as business or finance. Within private universities there is still a lot of variation – some are for profit, whereas some are non-profit; some are church-run, others are not.

How do you decide what sort of university to opt for? Well, it’s very much dependent on what you intend to study and your financing options. If you can afford to, and the university is rated highly, there is no reason not to choose a private university – assuming it’s accredited. If, however, financing is more difficult, looking towards public universities could well be a better plan.

Specialised vs general institutions

But wait! There’s even more to think about. As well as what most of us probably think of as ‘general’ universities, there are also specialised ones, sometimes referred to as colleges. Here, we’ll have a quick look at four major types of these, plus the more ‘general’ universities.

Medical universities

Medical colleges/universities are exactly what they sound like. Sometimes medical schools are stand-alone, and sometimes they are attached to a particular university. In some cases, they may be linked to a hospital too. Medical schools aren’t limited solely to training doctors/nurses, however, they will also often have courses in other scientific-based courses, for example ‘Biochemistry’.

Science/technical colleges

These two types of university often overlap in name, and this can be something to watch out for. A science-focused university may focus on either theoretical sciences or more on engineering, and it is worth researching the individual universities to check which it is. They may also sometimes be known as a Technical College rather than a Science College, for example the IST (Instituto Superior Téchnico in Portugal) provides courses in science, engineering and technology. This is important, as there is another usage of the term Technical School to watch out for.

The other meaning of the term Technical School usually focuses on the more practical subjects, rather than the academic ones. Examples of courses available at these types of Technical School include IT, Health and Beauty Care, and Agriculture. These schools are particularly good for students who already have a career in mind and wish to develop the practical skills required. They are also sometimes known as Polytechnics. Types of university

We recommend doing your research thoroughly if you are interested in applying to either of these types of university, and being aware of the double usage of the term ‘technical’.

Art schools

Art schools are focused on the visual arts, most often painting, photography, etc. That said, they also often encompass other arts, such as fashion. France’s École des Beaux-Arts was possibly the first such institution, and its tradition continues throughout Europe today. A degree at a higher education institution like this will cover art theory as well as requiring plenty of practical work. Studying at an art school can be very useful for networking within the art scene.

General universities

General universities are the sort of higher education institution that most students are familiar with – an institution offering a variety of courses in a broad range of subjects. These are the most common types of university in most countries. Within Europe, the tradition of these universities dates back centuries, which means that one major distinction between many of them is their age – although this doesn’t necessarily reflect quality. When researching General Universities be aware that even though they may teach a broad range of subjects, their expertise may still lie in one particular area – for instance, the London School of Economics strong point is, as its name suggests, economics, but it still excels in other subjects.

To summarise

How then should you go about choosing your ideal type of university then? Firstly, it will depend on subject – a medical school is no use to someone wishing to study fine arts, after all! Next, both expertise and financing come into play. There’s also the atmosphere to consider as well – a General University may well be more cosmopolitan attracting students from all sorts of backgrounds, studying a huge variety of things. A focused school like a technical institute is more likely to have everyone studying similar courses to each other – which could mean that the students are more likely to be of the same type. In the end, it all comes down to what you want your university life to be like, and each of these types of higher education institution will provide its own unique experience. What experience you want to have is something only you can decide.


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