Legal Status of Universities in the United Kingdom

All UK universities are independent bodies; unlike in the US and other European countries there are no government-owned universities. Instead, 'public' universities are considered to be those who receive funding directly from one of the funding councils for teaching and research, while 'private' universities are funded by tuition fees alone.

With the exception of three private for-profit universities, British universities are charities. There are four principal charity regulators for UK universities. For universities outside England, this is the relevant national regulator, i.e. the Charity Commission for England and Wales for Welsh universities, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator for Scottish Universities, and the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland for both Northern Irish universities. In England, most (all but 20) higher education institutes are exempt charities that are not registered with the Charity Commission; the principal regulator for universities that are exempt charities is the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) while for those that are not exempt it is the Charity Commission. Both of the two charitable private universities in England are regulated by the Charity Commission.

Universities in the UK have a wide variety of legal structures, leading to differences in their rights and powers, and in who is a member of the corporation.

The most common form among "old" universities is incorporation by royal charter. The form and objectives of the corporation are laid down in the individual charter and statutes, but commonly all graduates are members of the university. Many London colleges were also incorporated by this route. At the ancient Scottish universities the corporation is formed, under the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889, by the Court rather than the graduates. At Oxford and Cambridge (each incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1571 but treated as chartered corporations) only graduates who have proceeded to the academic rank of MA are members of the university. A chartered corporation may not change its statutes without the approval of the Privy Council.

Newcastle University is the only UK university to be a statutory corporation, and the only "old" University not incorporated by royal charter, having been created by the Universities of Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne Act 1963. Among London colleges, Royal Holloway, University of London was created in 1985 by the Royal Holloway and Bedford New College Act 1985 (merging the 19th century Royal Holloway and Bedford colleges), and is similarly a statutory corporation. The main difference between this and a chartered corporation is that a statutory corporation has no power to do something that is not aligned with its defined aims and objectives.

Most new universities are Higher Education Corporations, a form of corporation created by the Education Reform Act 1988 to incorporate the Polytechnics independently of their local councils. In a higher education corporation, only the governing board is incorporated, not the graduates. Some newer London colleges share this status.
Some new universities are companies limited by guarantee, a common form of incorporation used inter alia for some charities. The London School of Economics is also incorporated in this manner.

The University of Chester and Bishop Grosseteste University are both unincorporated trusts within the Church of England. This was also the original form of Durham University (at that time also a church university) between its foundation in 1832 and its incorporation by royal charter in 1837.