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The basics
THE UK: Applying to University

The UK higher education system simplified

What exactly is higher education in the UK and why should you choose to study there? We answer these questions and tell you about UK university culture and the grading system.

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The UK is a top study abroad destination for international students, but before you consider investing in studying in the UK, let us guide you through some of the basics.


Discover why the UK ranks in the top five study destinations worldwide and learn about the UK higher education system, the types of degrees on offer and the UK grading and classification system. 


Why choose higher education in the UK?


Watch and find out the answer to this question:



What types of higher education institutions are there in the UK?


Higher education institutions in the UK are either:


  • degree-awarding ‘recognised bodies’ such as universities and colleges.There are 160 universities and colleges across the UK that offer study programmes in all fields, across both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Recognised bodies are permitted to award students Bachelor, Masters and Doctorate qualifications, as well as selected other higher education awards depending on the nature of the institution.


  • non-degree awarding. These provide bridging courses for entry into a degree-awarding programme. While these institutions do not have the power to award degrees, they offer a number of vocationally-oriented and bridging programmes that may lead directly to employment, a degree programme or focus on developing a specific, technical skill set.


What types of degrees are there in the UK?


As with other destinations, degrees are offered at undergraduate and postgraduate degree levels.


Degrees at undergraduate level


Bachelor’s degree (BA)


Bachelor's degrees usually take three years to complete for a full-time student. Students will commonly complete a programme in a general area of study, and then select a specialisation within that area to focus their studies on. This area of focus is called a ‘major.’ For example, a typical Bachelor’s title might be Bachelor's of Science (BSc), majoring in Physiotherapy.


Bachelor's degrees are either awarded as ‘Ordinary’ or ‘Honours’ degrees depending on the student’s level of academic achievement. Usually, an Honours degree is a Bachelor’s programme with a higher degree of academic difficulty, taken in the same time as a standard degree. In Scotland, an Honours degree is a four-year full time course as opposed to an ‘Ordinary’ three-year programme.


Foundation degree


Foundations programmes combine academic coursework with practical, work-based learning with an employer. It may be taken as a programme in itself or act as a bridging qualification towards a full undergraduate degree.


Diploma of Higher Education or Higher National Diploma


These programmes may be used for entry into the third year of a degree programme.  DipHE awards may be academic but are typically linked to a specific profession such as nursing or social work, while HND programmes offer studies in more general areas.


Certificate of Higher Education


This is the most basic qualification offered at undergraduate level. Students may use this award for entry into a university Foundation degree, DipHE or full Honours degree programme.


Degrees at postgraduate level


There are a number of different postgraduate programmes on offer across the UK. Students may take a Master’s degree, Doctorate programme, or choose between a number of postgraduate diplomas, professional and vocational qualifications, as well as a number of conversion courses.


Postgraduate studies have a more concerned focus upon an area of general study, and are more study-intensive than undergraduate programmes.


Master’s degrees


These are either taught or researched-based programmes that are typically one year in duration.




These programmes may take up to seven years to complete. A PhD is the highest qualification offered by UK institutions.


Postgraduate certificates and diplomas


These may act as bridging qualifications into a Master’s degree, or simply serve to build upon skills and knowledge gained in undergraduate study. They may also be vocational in nature, and differ in length and study area depending on the institution.


Professional and vocational programmes


These are geared specially towards improving practical, employment-based skills required by specific jobs.


Conversion courses


These are vocational programmes that allow graduates wanting to change their area of study after their first degree to gain the knowledge required for either the workplace or for entry into another programme of study.


UK Academic culture


University culture in the UK values initiative, motivation and expects students to follow coursework and manage their academic progress independently.




Classes vary in nature but often involve both lectures and tutorials/seminars or practical classes. Discussion in tutorial classes is encouraged, and giving an opinion, even if it contradicts that of the professor, is taken as proof of engagement with course content.


Some lecturers will record their classes, seminars or tutorials for students to use as a revision tool. This is also intended to make the class content accessible for those who, for whatever reason, could not attend the class.


What is covered in the lecture is often intended as a departure point for tutorial discussions. Here, students are encouraged to form their own opinions based on their understanding of the concepts covered.


Professors commonly set weekly reading and short assessment tasks that are intended to give students the critical tools to participate in discussion and expand upon basic ideas covered. These tasks are seldom graded.


Examinations and assessment


Assessment is typically spread over a smaller amount of longer-form tasks such as research essays or extended investigations. Examinations are common and a heavily-weighted part of your final grade. Some courses even have final examinations worth 100% of the overall grade.


Grading and classification




The table below shows the different undergraduate grading classification. It is worth noting that the Open University (OU), which is a distance learning university with an open entry policy, has different grade boundaries:


Classification Mark OU Mark Equivalent grade
First class (1st) 70% + 85% + (OU) A
Upper second class (2:1) 60-69% 70-85 + (OU) B
Lower second class (2:2) 50-59% 55-70% (OU) C
Third class (3rd) 40-49% 40-55% (OU) D
Fail 0-39% 0-39% (OU) E/F

Note, you should always confirm grades with your university.




The marks and classifications for postgraduate degrees in the UK are as follows:


Classification Mark
Distinction 70% +
Merit 60-69%
Pass 40-59%
Fail 0-39%


Now that the Higher Education system in the UK doesn’t seem so complicated, perhaps you'd be interested in finding out which courses are available to you. Our coursematcher tool can help. 

Study in the UK


'Study in the UK' eBook

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