Free Career Information and Advice on Higher Education in the UK (...and Europe...) for Foreign and UK Students

Education System

The Grid below is for the education system in England and Wales, but also for Scotland, which is slightly different from that elsewhere in the UK. This grid is only a representation of course, as there are many exceptions. There are 3 year degrees in Scotland and 4 year degrees in England for instance. Left to the grid are links with more information on each. Apart from the general grid below, feel free to visit the page with comparitative grids for different countries. This page will be built up gradually and may not have the grid for your country yet. 

Please click on the image below to show a full table.Education grid 12102014


Higher National Certificate; HNC

Higher National Diploma; HND

Foundation Degree; Fda/Fdsc


Postgraduate Certificate; PGC

Postgraduate Diploma; PGD

Masters; MA, MSc

PhD or Doctorate












A lot of what you will read below is general information and is best not take to be the ultimate truth. There are often exceptions, variances and specific particularities linked to many aspects of the education system in the UK.


BA or BSc?

In the UK, there is a very general distinction between arts qualifications and science qualifications.

  • Arts degrees (MA, BA, Fda…) are generally linked to ‘arts’ subjects, such as history, law, art, geography etc… and are very generally less based in the strict sciences (physics, biology, chemistry and maths).
  • Science degrees (MSc, BSc, Fdsc…) are generally directly linked into the four sciences. Examples could be physics, astronomy, oceanography etc…

Please be aware that some subjects like psychology, sociology etc… offer both. Sometimes a student has the choice of either, depending on the specialism within a degree he or she chooses.

The explanation of arts degrees and science degrees is a very general explanation. Reality is generally less simplistic than is pictured here.

  • Another abbreviation you may come across is ‘SW’. SW degree or Sandwich course/degree is a degree where the student is expected to do one year of work within the industry linked to the subject studied. This ‘year out’ is sandwiched in between years at university. 

You will also find a range of other Bachelors degrees and abbreviations linked to particular subjects. Examples are BFin for finance, BMid for midwifery etc…

For degree studies in Scotland, also see Masters below 



  • Higher National Certificate.
  • Equivalent to the first year of a degree.
  • Typically one year full time.
  • A Btec course which is often a more vocational qualification after which you can do a second year to achieve an HND.



  • Higher National Diploma.
  • Generally equivalent to the first and/or second year of a degree.
  • Typically two years full time.
  • A Btec course which is often a more vocational qualification. 


Foundation D egree (Fda/Fdsc)

  • Equivalent to the second year of a degree.
  • Typically two years full time.
  • A vocational course with a more practical aspect linked in with industry.
  • Possible, and often expected, to be followed by a one year top up course to make this qualification a full degree. The qualification stands by itself however, and is well respected by British industry. A number of people take this qualification part time while working for a company, which often sponsors the student. 



  • Typically 3 years full time, but in Scotland generally 4 years full time. For most, this is still the standard higher education qualification, even though there is a trend in some industries towards a Masters as a typical qualification for entry.
  • Usually the standard qualification for entry onto the PGC, PGD or Masters.
  • Degrees are available at different levels:

    • Ordinary degree: you have a pass for your degree and/or have studied not in enough depth to be awarded an Honours degree.
    • Honours degree: in Scotland usually taking 4 years to complete, are the ‘standard’ degree and are themselves divided up as follows, dependent on the grades you got:

      • First Class
      • 2.1 or upper second class
      • 2.2 or lower second class
      • Third class
  • It often depends on the university where the cut off points are for each of these. Some universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, may have a different system of awarding creditation.

For degree studies in Scotland, also see Masters below 



  • Postgraduate Certificate.
  • Broadly equivalent to a third of a Masters.
  • The standard qualification for entry into teaching and some other careers.
  • Sometimes entry without a degree is possible if the applicant has a lot of experience in the field. 



  • Postgraduate Diploma.
  • Broadly equivalent to two thirds of a Masters.
  • The standard entry for some careers.
  • Sometimes entry without a degree is possible if the applicant has a lot of experience in the field. 


Masters (MA , MSc)

  • Typically taken in one year.
  • Possible to do a research or taught Masters, the first of which expects the student to do an extensive piece of research and write a more extensive dissertation. 
  • Some universities entitle graduates automatically to use the name Masters a number of years after finishing their degree, such as Oxford and Cambridge.
  • Some universities and some faculties may offer masters courses as a first degree, rather than a BA/BSc.
  • You normally would need at least a 2.1 or 2.2 degree to be able to get in.

Undergraduate Masters in Scotland:

The four ancient Scottish universities offer a Master in Art (MA) at undergraduate level for students in Fine Art, Humanities, Social Sciences and Theology. This Masters will be awarded in the same way as the Batchelor's degree: 3rd class, 2.2, 2.1 and first class. it is offered with both Honours and Ordinary. Degrees in the sciences are BSc degrees with or without Honours. So, don't be surprised if you see someone with an MA Hons…   


PhD  or Doctorate

  • Typically takes 3 years to complete.
  • Mainly requires research consisting of original work in the form of a dissertation or thesis.
  • PhD degrees are generally academic, but there are some professional PhDs in subjects such as engineering etc…
  • Not to be confused with an MD degree, which is a professional degree in medicine to become a medical doctor.


Copyright © 2011 Marc Truyens - Study Away UK