Higher education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland

Unlike Dutch higher education, British higher education is not divided into and . British higher education institutions can offer both types of education. This often means that for each diploma we have to determine whether it is HBO or WO. Below, we describe the diplomas that we often see.

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

For students holding GCE A levels, UCAS uses the following general requirements:

  • a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) with a pass for at least 5 subjects; and
  • a General Certificate of Education (GCE) with at least 2 subjects at Advanced Level (A levels).

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.

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.

  • 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.
  • Function of the diploma: meeting the admission requirements for a study programme in higher education.
  • Diploma: Access to HE Diploma (+ study programme), e.g. Access to HE Diploma (Health Science).

Foundation degree (FD)

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

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. There is no honours classification system (first class honours, second class honours, etc.) such as exists for bachelor's degrees.

  • Duration: 2 years (3 years part-time). After successfully completing the 1st year (120 CATS), students can obtain a Certificate of Higher Education as an intermediate award, the same as in a bachelor's programme.
  • : 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.
  • Function of the diploma: work or enrolment in the 3rd year of a relevant bachelor's programme (1-year top-up programme).
  • Diploma: one of the following foundation degrees:
    • Foundation degree in Arts (FdA);
    • Foundation degree in Engineering (FdEng);
    • Foundation degree in Science (FdSc).

The level of foundation degrees vary per study programme. Please contact us for a credential evaluation.

Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE)

Students receive a Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE) after completing the 1st year (120 CATS) of an honours programme (or an FD programme). So, a CertHE is an intermediate diploma, often referred to as exit award or intermediate award.

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

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.
  • Function of the diploma: a HNC entitles students to pursue further studies. They have the option of transferring:
  • Diploma: Higher National Certificate (HNC).

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

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.
  • Function of the diploma: with an HND, students can enrol in the 2nd or 3rd year of a relevant bachelor’s programme. Remarkably enough, British educational institutions can also admit a student with an HND to a master's programme if the student in question has relevant work experience.
  • Diploma: Higher National Diploma (HND).

We compare a Higher National Diploma (HND) to 3 years of 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). So, a DipHE is an intermediate diploma, often referred to as exit award or intermediate award.

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

Bachelor (Ordinary) degree

After obtaining at least 300 CATS of an honours programme, students will receive a Bachelor (Ordinary) degree. In this case, they have not completed the full honours programme. So, a Bachelor (Ordinary) degree is an intermediate diploma, often referred to as exit award or intermediate award.

  • Duration: at least 2 years.
  • Study hours: at least 300 CATS.
  • Content: is identical to the honours programme except that students have not successfully completed all subjects.
  • 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.
  • Function of the diploma: an intermediate diploma of an honours programme. 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.
  • Diploma: Bachelor (Ordinary) Degree, also known as pass degree.

We compare a Bachelor (Ordinary) degree to 3 years of HBOor at least 2 years of WO

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.

  • 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.
  • Function of the diploma: access to master's programmes or work.
  • Diploma: Bachelor (Honours) degree, bachelor’s degree with honours classification + study programme. For instance:
    • Bachelor of Arts (BA);
    • Bachelor of Commerce (BCom);
    • Bachelor of Engineering (BEng);
    • Bachelor of Law (LLB);
    • Bachelor of Science (BSc).

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

Master’s degree

Students can obtain a 'standard' master's degree in 2 ways:

  • via a taught master's programme; or
  • via an integrated master's programme.

Master's degree via a taught master's programme

Taught master's programmes are called this way because the majority of the programme is provided in the form of coursework.

  • Duration: generally 1 year.
  • Study hours: 180 CATS for 12 months of study (master’s degree).
  • Content: profession-oriented or research-oriented subjects. 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.
  • Function of the diploma: access to further studies, such as an MPhil or a PhD programme, or work.
  • Diploma: Master’s degree, such as Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MSc), Master of Engineering (MEng), Master of Physics (MPhys).

Master's degree via an integrated master's programme

Integrated master's programmes are essentially a combination of a bachelor’s and a master’s degree programme. After completing the programme, students only get a master's degree. These programmes are also assessed with an honours classification.

  • Duration: 4 years (480 CATS) or 5 years if students do a so-called sandwich programme with an extra year in which they obtain work experience (through a work placement).
  • Content: profession-oriented or research-oriented subjects. In England, integrated master's programmes consist of a small group of mainly technical specialist courses of study.
  • 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.
  • Function of the diploma: access to further studies, such as an MPhil or a PhD programme, or work.
  • Diploma: a master's degree, such as Master of Engineering (MEng).

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 programme 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.

Exception in Master of Arts

There is 1 major exception 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 (Honours), 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.

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.
  • Function of the diploma: access to further studies, such as an MPhil or a PhD programme.
  • 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.

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.
  • Function of the diploma: 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.
  • Diploma: Master of Research (MRes).

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.
  • Function of the diploma: access to PhD programmes.
  • Diploma: Master of Philosophy (MPhil).

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

Doctor of Philosophy

PhD programmes are concluded with a Doctor of Philosophy. Please note: there are also professional doctorates.

  • Duration: 3 years.
  • Content: research and a dissertation.
  • Admission requirements: usually a master's degree + extra requirements.
  • Diploma: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD,also known as DPhil).

Professional doctorate

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.
  • Admission requirements: usually a master's degree.
  • Diploma: Doctor in + name of the specialisation. For instance: Doctor of Medical Science (DMedSci), Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), Doctor of Engineering (DEng).