The most common undergraduate degree is known as a Bachelor's degree and generally takes 3 years to complete. Your qualification will depend on the subject you are studying and the university you attend, but might include:
- BA - Bachelor of Arts
- BSc - Bachelor of Science
- LLB - Bachelor of Laws
- BEng - Bachelor of Engineering
- BDS - Bachelor of Dentistry
- BMid - Bachelor of Midwifery
- BN - Bachelor of Nursing
- MBBCh - Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery
- BArch - Bachelor of Architecture
- BVSc - Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine
In Scotland, undergraduate degrees last four years (as students in Scotland finish school a year early), and, if studying at one of the four 'ancient universities', undergraduate degrees in the arts, humanities or social sciences are awarded an MA. However, if you have studied A-levels or the IB and you are reading a subject you studied previously, for example Biology, you may be able to skip the first year, depending on your A-level/IB grades.
A note about Master's degrees - Master's degrees are postgraduate qualifications that can be obtained on completion of a Bachelor's degree. However, it is becoming increasingly common (for funding reasons) to apply for an 'enhanced Master's programme' - this is a four-year undergraduate degree (five-year if studying with a year in industry or a year abroad - see below for more details) and includes studying extra subjects at a deeper level resulting in a Master's qualification. See the postgraduate section containing information about Master's degrees for more information.
Degrees can cost up to £9,000 per year, with the average degree coming in at £8,647. However, funding is available to pay for your child's tuition fee - please see Fees & Finance for more information, as each UK country works under a different system.
Bachelor's degrees are generally undertaken at a university, however there are a few further education colleges which offer degrees that are endorsed by a local college. Traditionally, studying for a Bachelor's meant moving away from home, however times have changed wtih 19% of undergraduates now living at home, and there is funding available for those living at home and away.
For more information about how to apply, finding a university and undertaking an undergraduate degree part-time, please see our dedicated Universities section.
Honours vs. Ordinary Degrees
Bachelor's degrees consist of a number of modules made up of credits. For example, to pass the year you might have to undertake 120 credits made up of four big modules worth 20 credits each and four small modules worth 10 credits each. In this way, to pass the degree you'd need to complete 360 credits (which will also include a dissertation). You will, most probably, apply for a Honours degree, however you can apply for a non-Honours degree, which would not involve as many credits over the three years, or if you fail a year of your Honours degree by a small margin and transfer, you can be awarded an Ordinary degree.
In Scotland, three-year degrees are offered as Ordinary degrees, and can lead to postgraduate courses in the same way, while four-year degrees lead to Honours degrees.
A Foundation Degree (available in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) is a qualification that is designed in partnersnip with employers, and combines academic and workplace learning, equipping students with the knowledge, understanding and skills relevant to their employment.
Foundation Degrees are offered by colleges (with degrees validated by the local university) and universities, and most degrees offer flexible teaching arrangements such as studying in the evening, part-time or through distance learning. They are generally undertaken by those already in employment and who want to use the qualification to further their knowledge and get ahead in their career, while the idea of a university experience as well as the ability to earn money at the same time is also appealing. Furthermore, Foundation Degrees are also ideal for those who are looking to return to work or pursue a new career.
Foundation Degrees are available in more vocational subjects, with the most popular being:
- education - teaching assistants, primary and nursery education teaching professionals
They generally takes two to four years to complete depending on whether you study full- or part-time. Furthermore, once you've completed it you can 'top-up' to a full honours degree with one to two more years of studying. Entry requirements will differ from course to course and university to university, and many people apply with level 3 qualifications, such as A Levels, Advanced Apprenticeships and BTECs level 3. However, formal entry qualifications are not always necessary, with your existing experience, achievements and desire to learn also being taken into account.
The cost of a Foundation Degree differs from university to university, however a full-time year will cost anything between £5,000-£9,000. Tuition fee and maintanence loans are available in the same was a Bachelor's degrees (see Fees & Finance for more information), while if you are currently in employment and the skills you'll gain will benefit your organisation, you may be able to undertake your degree through their sponsorship meaning you won't have to pay tuition fees, or will only pay part of them.
As Foundation Degrees are often studied alongside work it's likely that you'll attend a local university or college, however you can choose to study away from home if you like. Applying for a Foundation Degree is the same as a Bachelor's degree through UCAS, so for more information please go to our universities section.
CertHE & DipHE
The traditional Bachelor's degree takes three years to complete, however you can also choose to take one or two years culminating in a Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE - one year) or a Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE - two years). Although the courses are shorted than a degree, the teaching is the same and you may even go to the same lectures and sit the same exams as Bachelor's students.
Your child can apply to undertake a CertHE and DipHE in the same was as a traditional degree, so please see our universities section on more information about how to apply. In the same way, tuition fee and maintenance loans are offered, and our page on Fees & Finance provide more information on this.
Some careers only require these qualifications, for example a DipHE in nursing allows you to practice nursing in the UK, and this is true of many careers allied to medicine.
However, either a CertHE and a DipHE can be a stepping stone towards a Bachelor's degree through a 'top-up' course which will involve a further one or two more years of studying.
Additionally, if you originally intended to undertake a Bachelor's degree, but left a year or two early you may be awarded either CertHE or DipHE.
Graduate Certificate & Diploma
Graduate Certificates and Diplomas are higher education qualifications in line with Bachelor's degrees, but more limited in the depth and breadth of study. Hence a qualification will show that you demonstrate some, but not all, of the kind of skills, knowledge and capabilities that would be expected for a Bachelor's candidate. Gradute Certificates and Diplomas can take up to a year to complete (diplomas involve more work than certificates), depending on whether you choose to study full-time or part-time, and studying will involve lectures, exams and most probably a dissertation. Depending on the provider costs can vary widely, from approximately £5,000-£12,000.
They are offered in a limited range of subjects that are typically work-related, such as management, law, counselling or psychology, and are generally undertaken if you are looking to undertake further study or a career path different to your Bachelor's degree. A famous example of this is the Law conversion course which offers students with degrees in, e.g. biology or history, to be able to train as a solicitor or barrister. They are also common for subjects such as psychology where you'd need an accredited qualification to become a psychologist.
After completing a Graduate Certificate or Diploma you can then go onto your chosen field of work, which may involve further study, such as a Master's or a professional qualification.
To apply for a graduate certificate or diploma you can go through the university or other course provider directly.
HNC & HND
Higher National Certificates (HNC) and Higher National Diplomas (HND) are Level 4 and 5 BTEC qualifications (see BTECs for more information) that offer a mix of academic and hands-on practical and vocational learning to help you develop the appropriate skills needed in the workplace. They might also count towards membership of professional bodies and other employer organisations. HNCs take one year to complete full-time and HNDs take two years to complete full-time, while part-time study is also possible and will take longer.
HNCs and HNDs are available in a wide variety of subjects, including agriculture; computing and IT; construction and civil engineering; engineering; health and social care; business and management; sport and exercise science; performing arts; retail and distribution; and hospitality management.
HNCs and HNDs are mainly assessed through assignments, projects and practical tasks that are completed throughout the course, and are graded at a pass, merit and distinction level.
Most courses require Level 3 qualifications to apply, such as A levels, or a Level 3 BTEC, however, work experience will also be taken into account.
Undertaking an HNC or HND gives you the skills needed for a particular field, and can lead straight to a career. However, they are also equivalent to the first year (HNC) or second year (HND) of university, and if you wish to obtain a Bachelor's you can 'top-up' your current qualifications and attend the second or final year of university (depending on the modules your covered for your HNC/HND and how they relate to the degree course you are looking into). If you've undertaked an HNC you can also choose to undertake an HND afterwards.
The cost of HNDs and HNDs vary, but it will be approximately £5,000 per year. You can obtain a tuition fee and maintenance fee loan in the same way as a Bachelor's degree (please see our Fees & Finance pages for more information), and they are studied at college or university so you can apply through the UCAS system. For more information on this, please see our applications pages.
PGCert & PGDip
Postgraduate Certificates and Postgraduate Diplomas are available to those with a Bachelor's degree to provide them with specialised, but less extensive, knowledge that is equivalent to a Master's level. They can involve vocational or academic learning, and are offered in a wide variety of subjects. The PGCert is equivalent to a third of a Master's (60 credits) and a PGDip is equivalent to two-thirds of a Master's (120 credits), and both take up to a year to complete (depending on whether you study full-time or part-time).
They are often studied if you are looking to enter a particular profession, for example the PGCert in education (PGCE) is a requirement for teachers in state schools in the UK.
You can apply to the university or insitution you wish to study at, and different universities will have different admissions processes (e.g. interview, test or portfolio) and they will also ask for a Bachelor's degree as a minimum requirements. The current approximate cost for a PGDip is £10,000, while PGCerts will cost slightly less - and as it's a postgraduate qualification there's no maintenance loans available. However, some courses, such as the PGCE are paid for by the government.
With the emphasis on teaching and lectures, on completion of either a PGCert or PGDip you can go into the workplace or you can 'top-up' your degree and progress onto a Master's which will involve a dissertation and individual research.
A Master's degree is an academic qualification which offers a higher level of expertise than a Bachelor's in your particular choice of subject. They usually take one year full-time or two years part-time followed by a dissertation. Depending on what you choose to study you might gain a qualification of:
- MA - Master of Arts
- MSc - Master of Science
- LLM - Master of Laws
- MEng - Master of Engineering
- MChem - Master of Chemistry
- MMath - Master of Maths
- MPhys - Master of Physics
- MEd - Master of Education
- MArch - Master of Architecture
- MRes - Master of Research
- MBA - Master of Business Administration
Master's degrees are often more specialised than undergraduate degrees, so, for example, while you might have studied Biomedical Sciences at undergraduate level, you might choose to study either 'Human Complex Trait Genetics', 'Quantitative Genetics & Genome Analysis' or 'Evolutionary Genetics' in depth.
As a Master's student, you'll choose from either a taught or research degree. Taught courses allow you to build on the general knowledge and skills from your undergraduate degree in a more specialised subject. They involve a series of taught modules, delivered through lectures, seminars and practical work. These modules will be assessed by exams, coursework, dissertations and group projects on the knowledge and skills that you have learned.
Research Master's involved more independent study than a taught course and provides you with in-depth and hands-on training in the investigative processes of your chosen discipline. The course is likely to be a mix of taught modules and research, with the taught modules likely to involves statistical methods which will complement the research modules. The research aspect will be similar to the first year of a PhD, giving you a taste for the research environment. You'll be assessed through a variety of different methods including exams, lab reports, presentations and a dissertation. Research Master's are especially useful if you are looking to develop a career as an academic researcher or consultant, or in industry where an understanding of research would be useful.
To apply for a Master's you will need to have undertaken an undergraduate degree, most probably gaining a 2.1 or higher, while some Master's such as an MBA also require you to have completed a number of years in a related industry. If you are looking to undertake a Master's straight after completing your undergraduate degree start researching what you would like to study and the places that offer your course at the beginning of your last year of university - once admissions open, depending on the popularity of the course, places for the year might get filled up quickly.
You can apply for a Master's through the university's website and have to apply for each place separately, with your admission generally including your reasons for applying; a breakdown of your current and expected academic qualifications; the skills and experience you hold; and your research proposal if you are looking to apply for a taught Master's.
The cost of a Master's varies dramatically depending on what and where you choose to study - the average Master's costs between £5,000-£6,000 while an MBA can cost anything up to £50,000 - and there is currently no loan system in place so you'll need to fund your degree yourself. Grants and bursaries are available, websites such as FindAMasters and individual university websites will offer details on what is out there, however they are often very competitive. If your looking to undertake a research Master's you'll have more chance of gaining funding, especially if you match the research area of research councils. Additionally, government-funded bursaries are available for some courses such as those in teaching, medical, healthcare or social work.
Another way to gain some extra money would be through a part-time job whilst studying.
If your postgraduate course will enhance your career you may be entitled to a Career Development Loan of between £300-£10,000, with the government paying interest while you are studying. If you're certain your job prospects will be enhanced by your Master's this may be suitable option, however be wary as you have to start paying back the loan immediately as your course ends and this may be tricky if you haven't found employment.
A doctoral degree is the highest academic qualifications that an institution can award and they typically take four years to complete full-time and six to eight years part-time. You'll be examined based on a thesis, portfolio, artefact(s), clinical practice or other outputs which demonstrate your research question, critically evaluate the extent to which it has been addressed, and make an original contribution to knowledge, and a doctoral qualification is awarded if you rearch or exceed the required level of achievement. Doctorates are awarded by universities and other research institutes.
Doctorates revolve around creating knowledge through the practice of independent research and self-directed scholarship, and this creation of new knowledge or of applying existing knowledge in a new way is not expected in the same way at undergraduate or taught postgraduate level. You'll be guided by one or more supervisors in an institutional, professional or subject-based research community.
There are many options available to doctoral graduates, as the doctorate fulfils a wide range of purposes. In this way, doctoral qualifications awarded in the UK include the PhD, the professional doctorate, the practice-based doctorate and the doctorate by publication.
All doctoral degrees prepare the candidate to make a contribution to knowledge through original and independent research. However, the context in which you undertake you research may vary between the different qualifications available, as well as the way the programme is structured.
There is no national application scheme for doctoral degrees and typically you can apply directly to the institution(s) of your choice. Every institution sets its own requirements for entry and application, which may differ somewhat across subjects, and these are clearly published on institutional websites. Some institutions accept doctoral applications all year round, while others have application deadlines linked to specific start dates, typically October, January and April.
You'll often have to find their own fees and maintenance funding, and demonstrate evidence of adequate funding before taking up your place. However, some institutions can award doctoral funding. In particular, some subjects may have a bursary or finance system integrated within the application process; if this is the case specific deadlines usually apply. Some institutions will advertise for a doctoral candidate to be attached to a specific project or to undertake relatively specific research within that project, and this is likely to have fees and maintenance funding attached.
You'll be asked to support your application through:
- a research project outline or statement of intent
- evidence of ability to be able to undertake independent research
- degree transcripts
- academic or professional references
- writing samples or a portfolio of creative work
It's also likely that you'll be asked to attend an interview. You'll also have to hold the minimum of a Bachelor's degree, while some universities might also ask for a Master's degree.
Some institutions offer a combined Master's and doctoral award (sometimes known as the '1+3' model) that enables you to undertake a master's degree and, subsequent to satisfactory progress, enter directly into doctoral research at the same institution. You may be able to study part-time or via distance learning, however not all universities will allow for this, so research the universities of your choice if you want to carry on working at the same time.
Where to study
Many courses, such as Foundation Degrees, HNDs and HNCs are available to study at local colleges, with more and more opportunities for Bachelor's degrees to also be undertaken at a local college with the course accredited by your local university. As well as via the local university, vocational courses may be accredited by formal bodies, such as Edexcel.
Studying nearby can be useful especially if you already have a family and other commitments, such as a stable job. You can also tailor your commitments around part-time work, with courses often being flexible.
Some colleges also offer residential halls so there is an opportunity to stay on campus if you are looking for more of a university life
The main method of the teaching of Bachelor's, Masters, and Doctorates are through universities, which also often offer Foundation Degrees. Because of this, we've more information about studying at university in a dedicated section. If you do choose to attend university, you've also got the choice of studying nearby and living at home, or moving away from home. There are maintenance loans available to those who study away from home, and there's certainly the appeal of living with your friends, however you might choose to save money and live at home or have prior commitments. Approximately three quarters of students studying at university live away from home.
It is becoming increasingly common to study at home via distance learning (see our part-time learning section for more information). Distance learning enables you study remotely in your own time and you will be given reading and assignments by the university (or insitution you choose to learn with). You'll be given regular support from a tutor, and will be able to interact with fellow students via e-mail, online forums, phone and virtual conferencing. As well as studying remotely, it is likely that you will also have to attend days schools or residential weekends where you will have the chance to meet other course members in person and work with others to tackle some of the subjects you are studying.
With distance learning it is also common to study part-time, which is especially useful if you have other commitments, such as a job or a family.