Skip to main content

UniversityA degree is an award that is granted to a student who has completed the full course at university in doing so the students results prove that they have reached the required level of accreditation.

University terminology

Universities are steeped in terminology.

Matriculation is the process of entering a university. 

Undergraduates in their first term are also colloquially known as Freshers.

Graduation is when a student, now known as a graduande has completed the course but not yet received or had their degree conferred on them.

Types of Degree


An undergraduate degree is a level 6 qualification

Undergraduate degrees are called Bachelor’s degrees. Bachelor’s degrees are divided into two fairly self-explanatory categories Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science. 

Confusingly Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews and Edinburgh confer upon their BA graduates a MA (Masters of Arts) instead of a BA (these Master of Arts degrees should not be confused with a Master’s Degree).


Postgraduate applies to those who already have a degree and are returning to complete a further, higher level degree. Usually, but not always, this degree and subject will be an extension or relevant to the student’s original degree.

Master’s degree.

The name comes from the Latin word Magister meaning ‘master or teacher’. Master’s degrees are offered in specific areas or specialist fields. Some of the most popular Master’s degrees are

  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Science (MSc)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master or Law or a Legum Magister (LL.M) Do not confuse this with a General Law Degree known as a Law Conversion Course which is an undergraduate degree for students who decide to study law after university but did not study law at university. All LL.M candidates already have a law or approved related degree.

Routes to qualification

Postgraduate students have two routes to qualification:

PGR a degree achieved by independent research. A PGR is a good pathway for those wanting to continue in academia and are considering completing a PHD in the future. Or PGT qualification is similar to an undergraduate degree: attend lectures, seminars, provide course work plus a thesis. The T stands for taught.

Due to these pathways a Master’s degree can be completed via online learning. Study is therefore possible through an overseas university who offer a more specific course. Masters courses take between 3-4 years to complete. There are however some quicker and therefore shorter Masters courses options these are:  PGCerts or PGDips.

  • A PGCert requires 60 credits
  • A PGDip requires 120 credits
  • A full Master’s degree requires 80 credits plus a thesis or dissertation
  • Postgraduate degrees are level 7 qualifications.
  • PhD  - Doctor of Philosophy

This is the big daddy of degrees and at Oxford is known as a DPhil. It is the degree that previous academic work has all been building up to. A PhD is an intense research degree and despite its name can be in any field and on any topic as long as it is original and adding to the world’s understanding of the particular area.

PhD students usually work in their university and are committed to their academic life although it is possible to complete a PhD part time many PhD students also apply for to work as tutors or run seminars to help fund their learning whilst also taking full advantage of being in an academic institution and expanding and challenging their own knowledge and understanding.

A full time PhD will take a minimum of four years to complete, part time six to eight years. There is no taught course option, all PhDs are research driven. Qualification is gained by submission of a thesis and an interview where applicants are quizzed by University assessors on the Doctorates chosen subject (a superior version of Mastermind).

Degrees award classifications at UK universities

All undergraduate degrees are described as ‘Ordinary’ degrees and only require the student to pass the prerequisite examinations.It is possible to upgrade your degree and gaining a classified result either by extending the length of the course or taking on more work.  Assuming the student qualifies their degree is then known as an Honours degree and comes with the following classification attached to it.

  • Double First awarded to graduates who have completed with first class grades two full degree courses simultaneously
  • First class    colloquially called as a Damian Hirst
  • Upper Second class also known as a 2:1 colloquially called a Hun as in Attila the Hun
  • Second class usually called a 2:2 colloquially called a Desmond after Desmond Tutu
  • Third class colloquially referred to as a Thora Hird, a well-loved British actress

Each university has their own system of grading final degrees. Some include the first-year results, others only later years. How students reach their final grade will be explained during their first few weeks as it is crucial they are aware of the marking system and process.

A rough guide to average marks and the degree classification is

  • First = 70+%
  • 2:1 = 60-69%
  • 2:2 = 50-59%
  • 3 =  40-49%

Term dates and names

  • Michaelmas is a common name used at many universities for the term that commences usually on or just after St Michael’s Day 29th Sept. 
  • Oxford call the Spring term Hilary (again names after a Saint) whilst Cambridge use Lent.
  • The Summer term maybe known as Trinity term.

How long?

  • In England and Wales most degree courses are run over a three year period although some universities, such as Buckingham, have started to provide two year more intensive courses.
  • English and Welsh universities also run Sandwich courses. These are courses that include a year working in an industry relevant to your degree.
  • In Scotland degrees all run over four years.
  • Students who do modern language degrees will usually also find that their course is a four year course as they will be required to spend one year living and working abroad using and expanding their language skills.
  • Medics and architects are both required to spend longer at university.

Universities in the UK

In 2017 there were 162 Higher Education institutions this figure includes University colleges and specialist conservatoires.

After Oxbridge, the amalgamated name by which Oxford and Cambridge are known, there is a group of 24 well known universities who collectively come under the umbrella of the Russell Group. A Russell Group university is a world class university and a highly desirable institution, at which to study and entry is competitive.

We acknowledge that the Russell Group and the two Oxbridge universities are the elite universities in the UK but also point out that there are a further 136 universities or HE providers in the UK who may offer the very specific combination of courses a student wishes to study. 

Some universities have a niche faculty that fits a student’s interest or passions such as Medicine at Southampton, Cyber Security at Abertay or Hull and their politics degree which includes time spent working at the centre of British politics, Westminster.

A new faculty building such as Oxford Brookes smart purpose built business school a school within the top ten business school in the UK. 

A university of choice may be a smaller campus which will suit some better than others, being a big fish in a small pond can be very appealing; for example, St Andrews University if you like to be in the centre of town and a stone’s throw from the country.

College based universities don’t appeal to all and most are members of the Russell Group, but Kent and Lancaster could be worth considering as options.

Universities such as Bath have direct links with businesses and corporations and drive the content of certain courses directly towards ensuring their students will be ideal candidates for these larger businesses at a later date.

Others may have the most superior sports facility or offer a state of the art or well supported society such as Bristol’s Student Radio.

And, of course there are the specialist institution where students who already excel in the Arts can learn and gain a degree simultaneously.

Alternative options to gain a degree

There are other ways of studying for a degree worth mentioning here too.

  • Degree Apprenticeships – Employer driven programmes created in partnership with universities. Students simultaneously work and learn.
  • HNC - Equal to the first year a university. Employee driven but employers may be supportive.
  • HND - Equal to two years at university
  • MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – yes that really is their name! A bit of a disrupter to the higher education sphere MOOCs offer students the chance to learn at their own pace online and of course from anywhere in the world

MOOCs are the pay as you go option. Better still there is no payment when you are not enrolled. These degrees are also substantially than a course presented in person. MOOCs are fully flex but, as with any degree, they do require commitment from the student who will need to be self-motivated and able to manage their time without any institutional nagging so possibly best suited to those pursuing a Masters degree. A MOOC offers a student the chance to achieve a MSC in Innovation and Entrepreneurship from HEC in Paris without leaving your sitting room! Students can also learn in stages and test out a course by taking shorter taster, 12 + hour modules in some cases these modules can be accumulated and counted towards a final degree.

Many who complete a degree via the HNC, HND or MOOC route are in employment and use their learning to complement their current role or see their study as an opportunity to change career or upskill themselves and possibly gain a promotion.  

The Open University – For those looking to gain a degree from afar or via online teaching then the Open University, the largest university in the UK, is worth considering.

Most popular Good Schools Guide articles

  • Foundation Degree

    Not to be confused with art foundation degrees, foundation degrees were introduced in 2001 and are practical and flexible with a focus on precise skills and career outcomes. There are no prerequisite qualifications needed in order to apply. window.__lc = window.__lc || {}; window.__lc.license = 9097600; (function() { var lc = document.createElement('script'); lc.type = 'text/javascript'; lc.async = true; lc.src = ('https:' == document.location.protocol ? 'https://' : 'http://') + ''; var s = document.getElementsByTagName('script')[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(lc, s); })();

  • Degree apprenticeship

    A degree apprenticeship is a vocational and practical qualification that results in students receiving a high-class degree and three years of real life, real workplace training.  CLICK HERE FOR THE GOOD SCHOOLS GUIDE DEGREE APPRENTICESHIP HANDBOOK

  • Applying to university

    With over 60 universities in the UK it should be relatively easy to find an institution and course that fits a student's capabilities and both current interests and future hopes whilst extending and challenging them academically.

  • What is Higher Education?

    Higher education (HE) applies to any form of education that results in a level 4+ qualification. This includes HND, foundation degree, university degree or degree apprenticeship.

  • The Good Schools Guide: Careers

    For nearly 30 years the Good Schools Guide has provided trusted help and advice to parents, helping them with one of the most important questions they face - choosing the right school for their child. The Good Schools Guide: Careers (GSGC) is a natural development of that help, aimed at young people and their parents as they consider the future.

Subscribe for instant access to in-depth reviews:

☑ 30,000 Independent, state and special schools in our parent-friendly interactive directory
☑ Instant access to in-depth UK school reviews
☑ Honest, opinionated and fearless independent reviews of over 1,200 schools
☑ Independent tutor company reviews

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark

Buy Now

GSG Blog >

The Good Schools Guide newsletter

The Good Schools Guide Newsletter

Educational insight in your inbox. Sign up for our popular newsletters.