Higher education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland consists of:

The programmes can be both research-oriented and professionally oriented.

Degree programmes

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, students can earn the following academic degrees:

Bachelor (Honours) degree

Most bachelor’s programmes are honours bachelor's programmes. In this context, the term 'honours' does not refer to any particular graduation distinction, but signifies that students have attended an honours programme involving a certain number of study hours. British universities express students’ study results using an honours classification: see Assessment systems.

  • Duration: typically 3 years, but there are 4-year undergraduate programmes, such as the so-called sandwich programmes with an extra year in which students obtain work experience (through a work placement). Exceptions: 5 to 6 years for programmes in medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry and architecture.
  • Study hours: 120 CATS per year (360 CATS for 3 years of study).
  • Content: presentations and essays, participation in tutorials, exam components for each subject.
  • Admission requirements: a General Certificate of Education (GCE) with at least 3 A levels, or sometimes a BTEC Level 3 National Diploma or BTEC Level 3 National Extended Diploma. See also Admission to higher education.
  • Diploma: Bachelor (Honours) degree, bachelor’s degree with honours classification + study programme. For instance: Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BSc), Bachelor of Commerce (BCom), Bachelor of Engineering (BEng), Bachelor of Law (LLB).

We compare a Bachelor (Honours) degree to an HBO or WO bachelor’s degree. This depends on the content of the study programme.

Intermediate award in an honours programme

Students who are unable or unwilling to complete the full honours programme qualify for an exit award or intermediate award. These students will obtain a:

Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE)

Students receive a Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE) after completing the 1st year of the honours programme (120 CATS).

We compare a Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE) to 2 years of higher professional education (HBO).

Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE)

Students receive a Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE) after completing the 1st and 2nd year of the honours programme (240 CATS).

We compare a Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE) to 3 years of higher professional education (HBO).

Bachelor (Ordinary) degree

After obtaining at least 300 CATS, students will receive a Bachelor (Ordinary) degree. In this case, they have not completed the full honours programme.

We compare a Bachelor (Ordinary) degree to 3 years of higher professional education (HBO) or at least 2 years of university education (WO).

In most cases, a Bachelor (Ordinary) degree does not entitle a student to continue on to a master's programme. This is only possible with a Bachelor (Honours) degree.

Master’s degree

The one-year master's programmes can be both research-oriented and professionally oriented. These are taught masters, because the majority of the education is provided in the form of coursework.

  • Duration: generally 1 year.
  • Study hours: 180 CATS for 12 months of study (Master’s degree).
  • Content: students complete coursework (120 CATS) and write a thesis of around 8,000-15,000 words (60 CATS).
  • Admission requirements: as a standard requirement, students must hold a good honours degree, i.e. a Bachelor (Honours) degree with first-class or upper second-class (2:1) results. Universities can impose supplementary requirements, but they may also accept students with qualifications below the standard requirement, such as a lower second-class degree.
  • Diploma: Master’s degree, such as Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MSc), Master of Engineering (MEng), Master of Physics (MPhys).

We compare a Master’s degree to an HBO or WO master's degree. This depends on the content of the study programme.

Intermediate award in a master's programme

Students who are unable or unwilling to complete the full master's degree/taught master can qualify for an exit award or intermediate award after obtaining a portion of the required number of credits.

  • Postgraduate Certificate (PGCE) upon completion of 60 CATS.
  • Postgraduate Diploma (PGDip) upon completion of 120 CATS.

Exceptions in Master of Arts

There are 2 major exceptions in obtaining a Master of Arts (MA):

  • The Master of Arts degrees from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are awarded to students at least 2 years after obtaining a Bachelor of Arts (Honors), i.e. without any further studies or exams after their bachelor's. This explains why students do not receive a list of grades for these Master of Arts degrees.
  • At the 4 old Scottish universities (Aberdeen, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow) and at the University of Dundee and Heriot-Watt University students do not complete the bachelor’s degree programme in arts with a bachelor's degree. In contrast, they obtain the Master of Arts (Honors), abbreviated MA (Hons). See also Higher education – Scotland.

MA/MSc by research

An ‘MA by research’ or ‘MSc by research’ is the research version of a ‘regular’ MA or MSc programme (i.e. taught master). The emphasis lies on research and less time is devoted to coursework. Such programmes always involve research-oriented higher education.

  • Duration: 1 year.
  • Content: students complete coursework and training in research skills and write a thesis of around 15,000 to 30,000 words.
  • Admission requirements: as a standard requirement, students must hold a good honours degree in a relevant field, i.e. a Bachelor (Honours) degree with first-class or upper second-class (2:1) results.
  • Diploma: MA/MSc by research, in full: Master of Arts (MA) by research or Master of Science (MSc) by research.

We compare a MA/MSc by research to a WO master's degree.

Integrated masters

Integrated masters are master's programmes with a duration of 4 years (480 CATS). Or a duration of 5 years if students do a so-called sandwich programme with an extra year in which they obtain work experience (through a work placement). Students can enrol immediately after attaining their GCE A levels.

These degree programmes are essentially a combination of a bachelor’s and a master’s degree programme. In England, these master’s degree programmes consist of a small group of mainly technical specialist courses of study. Students graduate with a Master’s degree. These master’s degrees are at the same level as the degrees that students obtain after a standard master’s degree programme.

These programmes are also assessed by means of an honours classification. See Assessment systems.

Master of Research (MRes)

In a Master of Research (MRes) programme, the emphasis is similarly on the development of research skills. Students often carry out multiple research projects and complete less or no coursework.

  • Duration: 1 year.
  • Study hours: 180 CATS.
  • Content: coursework and training in research skills (60 CATS) and a thesis of around 15,000 to 30.000 words (120 CATS). In some cases, the programme has no credits (CATS) and no modules/units of study. In such cases, the programme consists solely of research-skill development and writing a thesis.
  • Admission requirement: a good honours degree in a relevant field, i.e. a Bachelor (Honours) degree with first-class or upper second-class (2:1) results.
  • Diploma: Master of Research (MRes).

The MRes sometimes counts as the 1st year of the PhD. In terms of research, the programme is the same as the 1st year of a MPhil programme (see below: Master of Philosophy).

Master of Philosophy (MPhil)

The Master of Philosophy (MPhil) is also a research master's, but at a higher level than a regular master’s degree or a MA/MSc by research. The level is typically higher than that of a Master of Research (MRes) as well. Note that in this context, the term 'philosophy' does not refer to any association of the programme with the study of philosophy, but rather to its foundation in conducting research. MPhil programmes may be found in any branch of studies.

  • Duration: generally 2 years, but programmes of 9 months or 1 year also occur.
  • Study hours: no CATS/credits, because students do not complete coursework, except at the University of Cambridge.
  • Content: students complete training in research skills and write a thesis of around 40,000 to 70,000 words.
  • Admission requirements: as a standard requirement, students must hold a master’s degree (MA/Msc) in a relevant field, but preferably a MA/MSc by research.
  • Diploma: Master of Philosophy (MPhil).

We compare a Master of Philosophy to a WO master's degree (research master).

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

After obtaining a research master's degree, students may be granted access to a PhD programme.

Professional doctorates

Professional doctorates are professionally oriented PhD programmes.

  • Duration: at least 3 years.
  • Content: research and a dissertation. These doctorates are awarded in the medical and paramedical sectors, in health care and for programmes in the domains of architecture, theology, psychology and business.
  • Diploma: Doctor in + name of the specialisation. For instance: Doctor of Medical Science (DMedSci), Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), Doctor of Engineering (DEng).

Non-degree programmes

British higher education also includes programmes that do not confer an academic title (such as Bachelor) but result in a different kind of certification. These are known as non-degree programmes. Important certifications that students can attain through non-degree programmes are:

Higher National Certificate (HNC)

While a handful of universities offer these non-degree programmes, students often earn the Higher National Certificate (HNC) or Higher National Diploma (HND) at institutions for secondary vocational education (further education colleges) and for higher education (higher education colleges). The level of an HNC programme is equivalent to the 1st year of a professionally oriented bachelor's degree programme.

  • Duration: 1 year (2 to 3 years part-time).
  • Study hours: 120 CATS.
  • Content: the courses are usually practical and profession-oriented.
  • Admission requirements: a BTEC Level 3 National Diploma or a BTEC Level 3 National Extended Diploma. When admitted based on GCE A levels and GCSEs, usually 1 GCE A level plus 3 to 4 GCSEs are required.
  • Diploma: Higher National Certificate (HNC).

We compare a Higher National Certificate (HNC) to 2 years of higher professional education (HBO).

Continuing to study after a HNC

A Higher National Certificate (HNC) entitles students to pursue further studies. They have the option of transferring:

  • into the 2nd year of a relevant Higher National Diploma programme; or
  • into the 2nd year of a relevant bachelor's programme.

Higher National Diploma (HND)

This programme conferring a Higher National Diploma (HND) is at a level equivalent to that of the 1st and 2nd year of a bachelor's programme.

  • Duration: 2 years, sometimes 3 years including 1 year work placement (3 to 4 years part-time).
  • Study hours: 240 CATS.
  • Content: the courses are usually practical and profession-oriented.
  • Admission requirements: a BTEC Level 3 National Diploma or a BTEC Level 3 National Extended Diploma. When admitted based on GCE A levels and GCSEs, usually 1 GCE A level plus 3 to 4 GCSEs are required.
  • Diploma: Higher National Diploma (HND).

We compare a Higher National Diploma (HND) to 3 years of higher professional education (HBO).

Continuing to study after a HND

With a Higher National Diploma (HND), students can enrol in the 2nd or 3rd year of a relevant bachelor’s degree programme.

Remarkably enough, institutions can also admit a student with an HND to a master's programme if the student in question has relevant work experience.

Foundation degrees (FD)

A foundation degree (FD) is considered a non-degree programme because it does not confer an academic degree such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree. FD programmes are aimed at preparing students for specific professions. In many cases it is the university that awards the foundation degree (FD) while the university's partner institutions (the so-called partner colleges) provide the actual degree programmes concerned.

  • Duration: 2 years (3 years part-time).
  • Study hours: 240 CATS.
  • Content: a combination of theory and practical training. The FD usually also comprises a project and an extended work placement.
  • Admission requirements: requirements vary, from certain GCSEs (usually for English and Mathematics with a grade of 3 to 1) or 2 GCE A levels (with the grade EE), or a BTEC Level 3 National Extended Diploma in a relevant field.
  • Diploma: Foundation degree in Arts (FdA), Foundation degree in Science (FdSc), Foundation degree in Engineering (FdEng).

Please note: there is no honours classification system (first class honours, second class honours, etc.) such as exists for bachelor's degrees. After successfully completing the 1st year (120 CATS), students can attain a Certificate of Higher Education as an intermediate award, the same as in a bachelor's programme.

Level of an FD

Given the huge diversity in admission requirements, the level of FD programmes varies; they have to be weighed on a case-by-case basis. See Diploma evaluation application.

Continuing to study after an FD

After attaining a foundation degree (FD), you can take a job or enrol in the 3rd year of a relevant bachelor's programme (1-year top-up programme).

Types of higher education institutions

In the United Kingdom, there are different types of higher education institutions:

  • universities;
  • non-university institutions, such as colleges, institutes, schools and academies.

These institutions provide both research-oriented education (WO) and higher professional education (HBO). For example, some institutions of higher education offer engineering both in research-oriented and in more professionally oriented bachelor's programmes.

Please note: only universities are considered recognised bodies, meaning they can award academic degrees. Other institutions do not have this right.

Admission to higher education

In the United Kingdom, admission to higher education is arranged via the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). The UCAS is a central application and placement body. Prospective students submit an application to the UCAS one year prior to the start of the desired programme.

Diplomas for admission

Graduates with the following diplomas may be eligible for admission to higher education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland:

Admission based on GCE A levels

UCAS uses the following general requirements:

The higher education institutions impose additional course requirements that can differ from one programme to another. These requirements often include the following:

  • 3 GCSE subjects assessed with an A*, A or B;
  • a General Certificate of Education (GCE) with a minimum of 3 subjects at A level; and
  • the A levels must be completed with an A*, A or B.

Please note: various British universities will also accept 2 additional AS levels as an alternative to the 3rd A level. In such cases, the 2 AS levels will need to be in other subjects than the 2 A levels.

Admission based on a BTEC Level 3 qualification

UCAS uses the following general requirements:

  • a BTEC Level 3 National Diploma; or
  • a BTEC Level 3 National Extended Diploma.
  • specific examination results, e.g. an average score of at least 60% or a distinction for specific components.

The higher education institutions impose additional course requirements.

Please note: not all British higher education institutes will accept candidates with a BTEC Level 3 National Diploma of BTEC Level 3 National Extended Diploma.

Admission based on the Access to HE Diploma

If prospective students do not meet the UCAS admission requirements, they can choose to obtain an Access to HE (Higher Education) Diploma. Various further education colleges in England and Wales offer programmes for an Access to HE Diploma, covering a wide spectrum of subjects. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) is responsible for the recognition and quality assurance of these programmes.

Access to HE Diploma

  • Duration: 1 year full-time or 2 years (or more) part-time.
  • Content: mostly vocationally oriented subjects preparing students for university education in a similar programme; students need 60 credits/units to obtain the diploma.
  • Admission requirements: typically 1 or more GCSE subjects (A*-C), usually English and/or maths and/or science; sometimes students have to pass an admission test.
  • Diploma: Access to HE Diploma (+ study programme), e.g. Access to HE Diploma (Health Science).

We compare an Access to HE Diploma to an MBO diploma level 4, a HAVO diploma or a VWO diploma. This depends on the programme and the level of prior education.