What is a University Degree?

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Degrees can be daunting and sound very confusing, especially if you are new to university study. There are a range of degrees at different academic levels and at which students can gain many different qualifications. If you are a student looking to study at university after you’re A-Levels, or if you are looking to make a return to education, learning the basics about university degrees can make all the difference and support you in your next step to university life.

A degree is an academic qualification which students usually complete at university. A degree is classified as higher education and is generally completed after A-Levels (or equivalent). University degrees range from level 6 qualifications, such as a bachelor’s degree, to a level 8 qualification such as a doctorate degree. Degrees can be taken in a range of different subjects. Universities will require you to have a pass in GCSE Maths and English as a minimum. Additionally, A-Level qualifications may be required, particularly for students beginning their first university degree.

This article will provide you with all the most important information you need to know about the different university degrees offered to students. Let’s jump into it!

What is a Degree?

A degree refers to an academic qualification which students at university complete. University degrees range from level 6 qualifications such as a bachelor’s degree to a level 8 qualification such as a doctorate degree.

The different degrees can be taken in a range of different subjects. These include core subjects Maths, English or Science as well as more practical subjects such as Art, Drama or Sports.

For most university degrees, students will need to meet some general requirements. All universities will require you to have grades C and above in GCSE Maths, Science and English as a basic. Additionally, A Level qualifications may be required, particularly for students beginning their first university degree.

The requirements will also alter depending on your degree subject choice. For example, some alternative degrees do not have any set requirements, with transferable skills being considered more important than academic qualifications.

For further information, check out UCAS for undergraduate entry requirements and for postgraduate entry requirements.

Additionally, if you want to apply to university, but don’t have any A-Level qualifications, read this Think Student article about how to get into university without any A-Levels.

What are the Different Types of Degrees?

There are many different types of university degrees. This section aims to explain each option you have when it comes to studying a degree.

Foundation Degree

A foundation degree is a standalone vocational qualification. It takes 2 years full time, or 4 years part time to study. It is a level 5 qualification and equivalent to two-thirds of a Batchelors degreeHigher National Diploma and Diploma of Higher Education.

In other countries including the USA, Australia and Canada, foundation degrees go by the name associate degrees. Similarly, they are studied after secondary school or sixth form and serve the same purpose as a foundation degree.

The degree focuses on the development of skills for a particular job or career. It gives students the flexibility to study whilst they work. Upon completion, students can go on to complete an undergraduate degree. Many students studying a foundation degree decide to boost their qualification to an undergraduate degree, some after their first year.

Similarly, to a foundation degree, some students decide to do a foundation year. This is an additional year of study taken as part of a bachelor’s degree, but in the first year. This provides students with a base level understanding of the subject. Therefore, it is usually recommended for students who have not previously studied the subject at GCSE or A-Level.

It is also ideal for students who are unable to meet the entry requirements of their chosen undergraduate degree. A Bachelor’s degree with a foundation year takes 4 years to complete with full time study.

Some of the above was taken from this source which you can look at for additional information.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is a level 6 qualification, completed at university following A-Level study or a foundation degree. It is the most recognised and popular degree for students going to university after A-Levels. 

Students studying a bachelor’s degree are often referred to as an undergraduate. Undergraduate relates to the students level of study as a first year studentA bachelor’s degree can lead to three key routes: to a degree, to a certificate/diploma, or combining a work placement with academic study.

A Bachelor’s degree studied full time usually takes 3 years, whilst part time takes 6 years of study. Some universities give students the option to study abroad for their second year, or to complete some work experience in their chosen work field.

There are two common types of Batchelors degree:

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA)– include English, Economics, Fine Arts, History and Legal Studies
  • Bachelor of Science (BSc)– include Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics and Computer Science

Other bachelor’s degrees include Bachelor of Education (BEd), which focuses on primary school teaching and Bachelor of Laws (LLB), which is a professional law degree and respected internationally.

There are also two structures to bachelor’s degrees:

  • A single honours degree – this involves the study of a single subject e.g., English Literature
  • A joint honour degree– this involves the combined study of two subjects which do not have to be related e.g., English Literature with History

Joint honour degrees are now becoming increasingly popular in that they enable students to learn about two separate subjects, adding some variety to the degree. An increasing number of Bachelor degrees are also now available with a foundation year for students who don’t meet the requirements or have not studied the subject before.

For more information on undergraduate degrees, check out this helpful article.

Master’s Degree

A Master’s degree is a level 7 qualification. It is the most popular and widely recognised degree for postgraduates. It is often regarded to as postgraduate study, meaning students who have already completed a degree at university (often a bachelor’s degree) and are now progressing towards a second university degree.

A master’s degree typically takes 1-2 years with full time study or 2-4 years part time. Students encounter more intense and independent study which involves completing modules and writing a dissertation.

Often if studying the same subject, the work will focus on building upon what the student leant about subject during undergraduate study. The degree is worth 180 credits, the most compared to other level 7 postgraduate qualifications.

 Check out this article for an in depth look at master’s degrees.

PhD and Doctorate Degrees

A PhD or doctorate degree is a level 8 qualification. PhD stands for ‘Doctorate of Philosophy’ and is the highest degree a student can achieve. The length of a PhD is 3-4 years with full time study, or 6-7 years part time. The degree usually involves researching a specific topic area of interest and writing a dissertation.

PhD degrees are split into three key stages across the 3-4 years. The first involves meeting with a supervisor and discussing a chosen research proposal. The second involves gathering results and research to develop the dissertation. This can be done in many ways, including teaching experience or submitting work for publication. The third focuses on completing any research and writing the dissertation.

Additionally, students will need to complete an oral exam discussing and defending their arguments and points from the dissertation.

For more information about what to expect from a PhD, see this helpful article.

Integrated and New Route PhD

An integrated PhD is a 4-5 year degree and an alternative to the traditional PhD. The degree combines a master’s degree with the PhD, using the first 2 years to focus on work for the masters. The degree combines taught materials from the masters with practical experience and independent research.

This degree would be beneficial for students who do not want to take additional time to move from a master’s degree to a PhD. Instead, the integrated PhD allows for a quicker and more blended transition whilst merging the work between a masters and PhD more effectively.

Therefore, for students who do not have a master’s degree but wish to take a route into research study, the integrated PhD allows them to achieve both qualifications combined.

How are Degrees Structured?

Bachelor degrees consist of 3 key types of formal work:

  • Examinations– these will be formal and mostly for science and maths based subjects
  • Coursework– this includes assignments and essays mostly for English based subject. Also, dissertations for master’s degrees and PhD’s.
  • Practical’s– these can include presentations for English Literature or lab experiments for Science.

Some subjects may involve a range of these over the study period and then are all used to give the student a grade. Alternatively, some subjects such as English Literature may focus on one, for example coursework.

Master degrees and PhD’s usually focus on a final dissertation that students will complete near the end of study. This is then the key piece of work used for grading.

How are Degrees Graded?

There are two main grading systems used for university degrees:

The first grading system is first class honours to a third-class honours:

  • First class honours– 70% and above
  • Second class honours, first division  60-69%
  • Second class honours, second division – 50-59%
  • Third class40-49%
  • Below this = fail

The second grading system is distinction to pass:

  • Distinction 70% and above
  • Merit– 60-69%
  • Pass – 50-59%
  • Below this = fail

For a bachelor degree, the first year of study has no weighting on the final grade, whilst the last year of study has the greatest weighting. Bachelor degrees are graded through the first class to third class honours system.

A master’s degree is graded using the pass to merit system. Alternatively, an integrated masters can be graded using either system, but usually adopts the same first class to third class honours system as bachelor degrees do.

Doctorate degrees or PhD’s do not use grading systems as students do not receive a grade. Students instead either pass or fail.

For further information on the university grading system check out this article.

What are Some Alternatives to Degrees?

Degrees are not the only option available after further education. This section will delve into the other options you may have.

Higher National Diploma or Certificate

Both the Higher National Diploma and Certificate are level 5 qualifications and equivalent to a foundation degree. They are both vocational courses which focus on combining study with practical work to prepare students for a particular career. These qualifications are popular for students who want to get hands on experience in their chosen career with the most popular courses in engineering and business management. If you want to learn more about vocational courses, click here.

The main difference between the diploma and the certificate is the study time. The Diploma takes up to 2 years full time study to complete and is the equivalent to the first 2 years at universityAlternatively, the certificate with full time study is a one year course equivalent to the first year of university.

Diploma of Higher Education

The Diploma of Higher Education is also a level 5 qualification completed after A-Level studyIt is a full time 2 year courseequivalent to the first 2 years of a Batchelors degree.

Although viewed as a standalone qualification, the course does meet the standard of a full undergraduate degree. Therefore, this makes the course a good alternative for students who do not wish to complete a full time 3 year degree.

Additionally, students can use this qualification to access the third year of a related degree course, to achieve an undergraduate degree.

Postgraduate Diploma or Certificate

A postgraduate diploma or certificate is also a level 7 postgraduate qualification, similarly to a master’s degree. Both the diploma and certificate are considered vocational courses through practical sessions focusing on skills needed for a particular career.

There is flexibility as to when students can complete one of these qualifications. The most popular route is for students to study one straight after an undergraduate degree to either boost their knowledge and experience in a particular job, or to change their career path.

The key difference between these qualifications is the credits earned. The diploma is worth 120 credits and takes two terms (30 weeks) with full time study to completeThis is equivalent to two thirds of a master’s degree. In contrast, the certificate is worth 60 credits and is shorter, taking one term (15 weeks) with full time study to complete. This is equivalent to one third of a master’s degree.

Degree Apprenticeships

A degree apprenticeship allows students to combine a job with their university degree. This allows for a balance of both practical work experience and academic study.

This is becoming an increasingly popular route for students, especially with the growing popularity of apprenticeships. It is convenient for students for many reasons, including the cost of a full time university degree compared to a degree apprenticeship.

What are the Benefits of Doing a Degree?

One main benefit of doing a degree is your employabilityHaving studied a degree makes you more employable, gives you access to a larger range of jobs meaning you are more likely to get a better quality job. It also means you are more likely to earn a higher salary compared to people who did not complete a degree.

Additionally, degrees make students more prepared for a specialist job, through the completion of extensive research and independent study.

On a more personal level, doing a degree can promote personal growth and help build up students’ self-esteem. Having experienced the university lifestyle, can have many positive impacts on your self-esteem, confidence and even mental approach towards a career or job.

If you are unsure a degree is for you, check out this article where a student gives their opinion on whether you should go to university.

How Many Students Choose to Do Degrees?

University degrees are increasingly popular routes for students to take. Since 2019, more than half of students are now choosing to study a degree at university. The benefits of studying a degree as well as the personal growth that comes from experiencing university life adds to its popularity. Although the progression from A-Levels to a degree can be daunting, studying a university degree can be very rewarding both academically and personally.

The overall number of first year students at university in the UK in 2020/21 increased by 13%. In the same academic year, 527,070 students obtained a qualification in undergraduate study and 345,700 students in postgraduate study.

Meanwhile36% of students studying bachelor degrees achieved first class honours and 46% achieved upper second class honours.

In 2020/21, 69% of undergraduate students studied a first degree with just 2% studying a foundation degree. 12% of students then continued to study a taught master’s degree, with just 2% progressing to study a doctorate degree.

What Degrees are the Most and Least Popular?

Statistics show that some university courses are extremely popular, whilst others less so. This could be because of the jobs they can lead to. For example, jobs in technologies may be declining whereas jobs in business management are increasing. This could result in students being more likely to choose to study this at university.

Some of the most popular subjects to study at university include:

  • Business– popular courses include economics, finance and management, marketing, banking and finance and accounting
  • Natural sciences– popular courses include biology, marine biology, computer science and chemistry
  • Law– popular courses include bachelor of law, criminology and law, master of law, civil law and criminal justice
  • Medicine– popular courses include dentistry, veterinary surgery, nursing, biomedicine and pharmacy
  • Social sciences– popular courses include psychology, political science, history and linguistics
  • Sports science – popular courses include sports and exercise sciences, sports science and physiology and sports and exercise nutrition
  • Arts– popular course include fine art painting, graphic design and fashion design

Some of the least popular subjects to study at university include:

  • Non-European languages
  • Technologies
  • European languages
  • Agriculture
  • Mathematic sciences

First degrees including bachelor degrees are shown to be the most popular degree at university, with 69% of undergraduate students studying one 2020/21.

Check out these interesting Think Student Article about the 10 easiest university degrees in the UK and the 10 hardest university degrees in the UK.

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