United Kingdom

RegionCentral Europe
CapitalLondon
LanguageEnglish, Welsh
Population67,181,775
Expenditure on higher education4,52 %
Unemployment3,80 %
EuroUniversities in top 10024
EuroUniversities in top 25052
EuroUniversities in top 50083
EuroUniversities in top 1000117
Students2,600,000
Foreigner students16,4 %
Enrollment rate in higher education60,9 %

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a sovereign country located off the north­western coast of the European mainland. The United Kingdom includes the island of Great Britain, the north­eastern part of the island of Ireland, and many smaller islands. The UK’s top two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, are both expansive collegiates that are some of the oldest higher learning institutions in existence, and consistently rank in the top five universities worldwide. Since 1998 universities in the UK have charged tuition fees, usually at a higher rate for international students.

United Kingdom – England

Higher Education

The definition of higher education, according to Schedule 6 of the Education Reform Act 1988, is education at a higher standard than courses leading to a General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (A Level), or Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) National Certificate or National Diploma. These are qualifications at Level 3 on the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF).

Higher education courses can be provided by different types of institution: higher education institutions (HEIs) in receipt of government funding through annual grants from the Office for Students (OfS)further education (FE) institutions; and alternative (private) providers. The article on ‘Types of Higher Education Institutions’ describes the different types of institution, and the remaining articles in the chapter focus on the range of programmes and levels of study that feature in the system.

Higher education (HE) in England shares a number of characteristics and structural features with HE in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. In all four parts of the United Kingdom, HEIs are autonomous self-governing bodies that offer degrees by virtue of their own degree awarding powers or the degree awarding powers of another institution. These degree awarding powers are recognised by the UK authorities (UK and Scottish Parliaments, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies). Institutions are responsible for appointing and employing their own staff.

Reflecting these commonalities and shared missions, a number of sector-led bodies operate on behalf of higher education institutions across the UK. These bodies include:

  • Universities UK (UUK), whose members are the executive heads of UK institutions
  • GuildHE which, along with UUK, is a recognised representative body for higher education in the UK
  • the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which coordinates student applications services across the UK
  • the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), which collects data from higher education providers to support UK governments and higher education funding bodies in their regulatory and funding work
  • Advance HE, a sector agency promoting equality and diversity, learning and teaching, and leadership and governance in higher education – since March 2018, it has included the Higher Education Academy (HEA), which offers professional development opportunities and accreditation for courses that support staff who teach and / or support learning
  • the Committee of University Chairs (CUC), which represents the chairs of UK university governing bodies, and develops and promotes governance standards for higher education in the UK.

Within the context of institutional autonomy, some common approaches and frameworks are used. There is no system for the accreditation of institutions, but the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) makes judgements on UK institutions’ capability to manage their own quality and standards, and the UK Quality Code for Higher Education provides the definitive reference point for institutions.

Assessment of research operates on a UK-wide basis through the Research Excellence Framework (REF), although there are differences in the way the funding bodies use the results to allocate funding for research infrastructure.

Grants for specific research projects and programmes are administered on a UK-wide basis by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a body established in 2018.

In addition to the commonalities, there are also some distinct differences in higher education provision in the UK. The most notable of these are differences in tuition fees and student support, the funding of institutions and governance arrangements. These divergences have developed, in particular, since the late 1990s when the devolved administrations of Northern Ireland and Wales took on responsibility for education.

In England, teaching in most subjects is now supported by tuition fees rather than by direct grants from government, although there is some annual grant funding from the Office for Students (OfS), which became the regulator for higher education in April 2018, succeeding the former Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). HEIs wishing to receive this funding must register with the OfS, as must HEIs wishing to have access to the student support system, recruit international students with a Tier 4 sponsorship licence, and/or have degree awarding powers and ‘university’ title.

Policy objectives for higher education 

Policy for higher education falls within the remit of the Minister of State, a role which has responsibilities within both the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The Minister’s DfE priorities include:

  • universities and higher education reform
  • higher education student finance
  • widening participation and social mobility in higher education
  • international students and international research
  • review of post-18 education and funding
  • tackling extremism in higher education.

Within BEIS, the Minister’s responsibilities include science and research and the UK’s Industrial Strategy.

The Government set out its higher education priorities in a number of documents during the 2015 to 2017 Parliament.

The Coalition Government, in office from 2010 to 2015, raised the level of yearly tuition fees that universities in England could charge to £9000 (€10,168.34*) from September 2012. This increase was subject to universities committing to more ambitious measures to widen access, agreed with the independent Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, and implemented proposals set out in the June 2011 White Paper, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System. This took forward the recommendations from Lord Browne’s 2010 review, Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education. The maximum fee has since risen to £9250 (€10,450.79*) for HEIs which meet criteria linked to the TEF.

For an overview of recent shifts in higher education in England, see the Universities UK publication Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education 2018, the latest in a series that provides a summary of annual statistical data about the UK higher education sector in the context of the trends of the previous decade.

The Department for Education provides a collection of statistics on widening participation in higher education since 2010 on its website.

 * Exchange rate used: €1 = £0.88, ECB 16 September 2019.

Higher Education and Research Act 2017 

The implementation of higher education policy in England went through a period of transition between April 2018 and July 2019, as reforms that were introduced under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 came into force. This Act became law in April 2017 and it included the following provisions.

  • The Office for Students (OfS), a new regulatory body to oversee the higher education sector in England, was created. The OfS has explicit duties focused on choice, quality and value for money and, in performing its functions, it must also have regard to the need to protect the institutional autonomy of higher education providers. The OfS became fully operational in April 2018, replacing both the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA). Its responsibilities include:
  • The aim of bringing greater transparency to the data held by the higher education sector was established.
  • Risk-based regulation was established, with the aim that the higher education sector serves its stakeholders (students, employers and taxpayers).
  • A single research and innovation funding body, United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI), was created to operate across the whole of the UK, bringing together the seven research councilsInnovate UK and a new organisation, Research England.

The Government provides strategic guidance to the OfS, setting out its specific priorities for the coming academic year, in the same way as it previously sent annual grant letters to HEFCE. The guidance for 2019/20 maintains the Government’s focus on endeavours to protect funding for high-cost subjects (notably to enable high quality provision in science, technology and engineering), for widening participation, and for small and specialist institutions.

Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) 

The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) is a process introduced by the UK Government to measure the quality of teaching in English higher education institutions (HEIs). It rewards those HEIs providing high quality teaching by permitting them to charge a higher level of student tuition fee (‘differentiated’ tuition fees). The introduction of the first TEF assessment in 2015/16 and awards for 2016/17 followed concerns that, in many HEIs, teaching has been less valued than research. HEIs in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales may opt to apply for inclusion, although holding a TEF award has no effect on the tuition fees which they are able to charge.

The TEF draws on existing, nationally collected data to provide assessors with six main metrics that relate to each of the aspects of teaching excellence:

  • student satisfaction with teaching on their courses (collected through the National Student Survey)
  • student satisfaction with assessment and feedback
  • student satisfaction with academic support
  • student retention
  • employment or further study (six months after graduation)
  • highly skilled employment or further study (six months after graduation).

Since its launch, additional data has been added to strengthen the metrics above. From 2017/18, measures from the Department for Education’s Longitudinal Educational Outcomes dataset were included, to explore where graduates are employed and what they earn three and five years after graduation. Moreover, from 2018/19, as part of a pilot to move towards subject-level TEF awards, grade inflation metrics were introduced, in order to help tackle grade inflation at provider and sector levels, as investigated by the OfS and the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment in late 2018.

A panel of student representatives, academic peers and experts assesses each provider in line with the above metrics and considers the evidence contained in a provider submission. Providers then receive a Gold, Silver or Bronze award. The TEF assessment undertaken from 2019-21 is expected to produce full subject-level awards, in addition to provider-level awards.

The TEF was first carried out during the academic year 2015/16, after which providers received ‘meets expectations’ awards. Gold, silver and bronze awards were first introduced for providers at the end of 2016/17. From 2017/18, institutions conferred an award in the previous year have been permitted to charge a higher maximum student tuition fee of £9250 (€10,450.79*) per year, as opposed to £9000 (10,168.34*), the maximum for institutions without an award.

In November 2018, the Government announced an independent review of the TEF and published terms of reference. A consultation was held from January to March 2019, and a report is expected to be published in summer 2019, so that its recommendations can be considered before the implementation of subject-level awards.

For further information about the TEF, see the information provided by the Office for Students on its website.

Research England, which forms part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), is developing a Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) on behalf of the UK Government to bring together a range of measures of impact from HEIs’ collaboration and knowledge exchange work. The aim is that this will enable HEIs to benchmark and develop their own performance and increase their accountability to taxpayers, local government and businesses. The KEF is also intended to complement and support the TEF and the Research Excellence Framework (REF) (which is described under the subheading ‘External assessment of quality of research’ in the article on ‘Quality Assurance in Higher Education’). Research England published the responses to a call for evidence held in December 2017, along with further information on its work. A consultation on the proposals for the KEF was held in early 2019. Additionally, 21 HEIs were recruited to take part in a pilot exercise to test and refine KEF proposals, which ran from February to May 2019. A report evaluating the pilot is due to be published alongside an analysis of consultation responses in early summer 2019.

* Exchange rate used: €1 = £0.88, ECB 16 September 2019.

Widening participation

Widening participation in higher education has long been a feature of government policy, seeking to address discrepancies in the take-up of higher education opportunities, and retention in higher education, between disadvantaged and under-represented student groups and their peers.

In its 2015 Green Paper, Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, the Government set two targets for widening participation by 2020, which it reiterated in its 2016 White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy:

  • to double the proportion of pupils going into higher education from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • to increase the number of students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds entering higher education by 20%.

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 led to the establishment of the Office for Students (OfS), the new regulator of the higher education sector, which took over the functions of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA). An important part of its responsibilities involves overseeing widening participation in higher education:

‘The OfS will […] have a duty to promote equality of opportunity[.] This will mean looking beyond getting students from disadvantaged backgrounds into university – they will also be charged with making sure that providers are doing all they can to support the students through their course, helping to tackle drop-out rates and support disadvantaged students into employment.’

The OfS’s Director of Fair Access and Participation is responsible for ensuring that higher education institutions (HEIs) support under-represented groups to access and succeed in higher education, by approving their access and participation plans. Furthermore, the OfS launched the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) in 2017, which brings together universities, colleges and other local partners to deliver outreach programmes to young people in secondary school. In February 2019, the OfS helped to establish the Evidence and Impact Exchange (EIX), which will bring together senior leaders and practitioners from across the higher education landscape to discuss and understand effective practice in increasing access, student success and progression.

The policy paper Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential (December 2017), which aims to improve social mobility through education, is the Government’s national plan to support children and young people to reach their full potential. It contains an objective to create high-quality post-16 choices for all young people by expanding access to the best higher education institutions (HEIs) and improving the quality of technical education. This objective is also being addressed by the ongoing review of post-18 education and funding. A House of Commons briefing paper, published in January 2018, traces developments in this policy area since 2010.

Review of post-18 education and funding 

Government policy places higher education in the wider context of the range of options available to those aged 18 years, and is seeking to create a system that:

  • is accessible to all
  • is supported by a funding system that provides value for money and works for students and taxpayers
  • incentivises choice and competition across the sector
  • encourages the development of the skills that the UK needs at national level. 

In early 2018, the Government set up a review to consider how it can achieve these aims and established an independent review panel to provide input. Led by Philip Augar, the final report was published in May 2019. The recommendations for higher education funding included:

  • reducing higher education tuition fees to £7500 (€8473.61*) per year
  • extending the student loan repayment period from 30 years to 40 years
  • reducing the interest charged on student loans while students are studying
  • capping the overall amount of repayments on student loans to 1.2 times their loan
  • reducing the income threshold for student loan repayments from £25,000 (€28,245.39*) to £23,000 (€25,985.76*)
  • reintroducing maintenance grants of £3000 (€3389.44*) for disadvantaged students
  • introducing maintenance support for Level 4 and Level 5 qualifications.

For further information, see this House of Commons Library briefing (May 2019).

* Exchange rate used: €1 = £0.88, ECB 16 September 2019.

Industrial Strategy 

The Government’s Industrial Strategy (published in November 2017) impacts on higher education. It aims to improve living standards and economic growth by increasing productivity and driving growth across the UK and highlights, in particular, the important role of higher education in helping to tackle skills shortages in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

International Education Strategy 

In March 2019, the Government published its International Education Strategy, outlining its plans to increase students numbers and income generated from international education. It includes the aim of increasing the number of international students studying in the UK by more than 30% by 2030.

Legislative framework 

Higher education institutions (HEIs) in England are autonomous self-governing bodies. The structure of programmes is not regulated by law. Subject to the status of their degree awarding powers (DAPs), HEIs are free to design and offer such programmes and awards as they wish. However, all institutions structure their programmes along broadly similar lines (a three-cycle framework, incorporating undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral study), which conforms to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) qualifications framework.

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 introduced new provisions relating to regulation, quality, and research and innovation funding, and established the Office for Students (OfS), which became operational in April 2018, as the regulator for higher education in England. In February 2018, the OfS published a new regulatory framework for higher education in England, Securing Student Success, setting out four primary regulatory objectives (page 14):

‘All students, from all backgrounds, and with the ability and desire to undertake higher education:

  • are supported to access, succeed in, and progress from, higher education
  • receive a high quality academic experience, and their interests are protected while they study or in the event of provider, campus or course closure
  • are able to progress into employment or further study, and their qualifications hold their value over time
  • receive value for money.’

Quality assurance in higher education is not regulated by law. HEIs are responsible for the approval of their own programmes and for ensuring that appropriate standards are achieved. They are judged on how well they fulfil these responsibilities and the effectiveness of their processes by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). The main reference point for the QAA’s work is the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, which sets out the expectations that all providers of UK higher education are required to meet, and provides them with a shared starting point for setting, describing and assuring the academic standards of their higher education awards and programmes and the quality of the learning opportunities they provide. 

The current arrangements for tuition fees for full-time undergraduate students operate under the Higher Education Act 2004. The Act brought about substantial changes to what institutions could charge, with the maximum annual amount prescribed by regulations made under the Act by the Secretary of State. The 2004 Act also established the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to promote and safeguard fair access to higher education for under-represented groups in the context of increased tuition fees; this role transferred to the OfS in April 2018.

Changes to the regulations prescribing the maximum annual amount for tuition fees from 2012 were approved by Parliament in December 2010. Since then, and since the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, HEIs that meet or exceed expectations for quality and standards in teaching, as established by the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), are able to increase their fees in line with inflation. At the end of 2016/17, a majority of HEIs in England fulfilled these criteria and were conferred a gold, silver or bronze award, leading to most of them announcing tuition fee rises from 2017/18.

Regulations made under the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 require that tuition fees are set at the same level as the maximum amount of loan support the Government makes available to full-time undergraduate students. Fees for postgraduate students are not regulated.

Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) 

Although not required by law to do so, all institutions design their qualifications in accordance with the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ). This is developed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and forms part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. The FHEQ is intended to promote consistency across the sector, by facilitating a shared understanding of the expectations associated with typical qualifications, and ensuring that qualifications with the same titles are of an equivalent academic standard.

The fundamental premise of the FHEQ is that qualifications should be awarded based on achievement of outcomes and attainment rather than years of study.

The five levels of the FHEQ are numbered 4–8 (Levels 1–3 cover levels of education that precede higher education).

Qualification descriptors illustrate the distinct level of intellectual achievement for each level of the framework. They indicate the threshold academic standard for those qualification types, in terms of the levels of knowledge and understanding and the types of abilities that holders of the relevant qualification are expected to have (FHEQ, pages 19-32).

Subject benchmark statements make explicit the nature and characteristics of awards in a specific subject area, and set out the attributes and capabilities of graduates in that subject. They exemplify what the generic outcomes set out in the qualification descriptors in the FHEQ might look like in practice.

The following table illustrates the main types of qualifications.

FHEQ levelCorresponding FQ-EHEA cycleTypical higher education qualifications within each level
8Third cycle (end-of-cycle) qualificationsDoctoral degrees (e.g. PhD/DPhil, EdD, DBA, DClinPsy)
7Second cycle (end-of-cycle) qualificationsMaster’s degrees (e.g. MPhil, MLitt, MRes, MA, MSc)Integrated master’s degrees (e.g. MEng, MChem, MPhys, MPharm)Primary qualifications (or first degrees) in medicine, dentistry and veterinary science (e.g. MB, ChB, MB BS, BDS, BVSc, BVMS)
7 Postgraduate diplomasPostgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) / Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE)Postgraduate certificates
6First cycle (end-of-cycle) qualificationsBachelor’s degrees with honours (e.g. BA/BSc Hons)Bachelor’s degrees
6 Professional Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE)Graduate DiplomasGraduate Certificates
5Short-cycle (within or linked to the first cycle) qualificationsFoundation Degrees (e.g. FdA, FdSc)Diplomas of Higher Education (DipHE)Higher National Diplomas (HND)
4 Higher National Certificates (HNC)Certificates of Higher Education (CertHE)

(Adapted from QAA (2014). Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), page 17)

The FHEQ has been self-certified as compatible with the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area (FQ-EHEA).

Note: The FHEQ is not a credit framework. For a description of the use of credit in English higher education.

Structure of the academic year

The structure of the academic year is not regulated by law. However, for funding and reporting purposes, the academic year runs from 1 August to 31 July.

The teaching year typically starts in mid to late September or early October and ends in mid to late June. The year is traditionally divided by breaks into three teaching terms, although some institutions organise teaching along a two-semester system.

A small number of institutions offer accelerated degrees, which require student attendance for longer periods during the year. In an effort to encourage the expansion of accelerated degrees, The Higher Education (Fee Limits for Accelerated Courses) (England) Regulations 2019 were passed, meaning that students undertaking accelerated degrees from September 2019 onwards would save 20% on their tuition fees, compared to traditional courses.

For postgraduate students, the organisation of time varies. Where a taught master’s programme has a duration of one year, this normally means a full calendar year, e.g. October to October.

Teaching typically takes place between 9.00 a.m. and 6.00 p.m., from Monday to Friday, but may take place at other times. Part-time courses may run during the day or in the evening.

Bachelor

Branches of study

Bachelor’s degrees with honours are the largest group of first cycle programmes (undergraduate programmes). They are often known as honours degrees or first degrees. Bachelor’s degrees can also be awarded without honours.

Programmes leading to a bachelor’s degree normally last three or four years for full-time students. Three years is the most common duration, but some programmes add a ‘sandwich’ or placement year which is usually spent in work experience or as a year abroad (the latter being common for languages degrees). 

Accelerated degrees allow students to study the same content and quality of degree as a standard programme, but over two years rather than three and with more teaching time per year. The Higher Education (Fee Limits for Accelerated Courses) (England) Regulations 2019 supports the expansion of accelerated degrees and allows students to save on their tuition fees.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) which hold degree awarding powers are responsible for the design of their own programmes and awards.

Programme design

In designing bachelor’s degree programmes, HEIs refer to the qualification descriptor for a higher education qualification at Level 6 on the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ): bachelor’s degree with honours. This describes the threshold academic standard for the qualification in terms of the levels of knowledge and understanding, and the types of abilities, that holders of the qualification are expected to have.

HEIs also refer to subject benchmark statements, which set out expectations about standards of degrees in a range of subject areas. These statements, which also form part of the FHEQ, describe what gives a discipline its coherence and identity, and define what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the abilities and skills needed to develop understanding or competence in the subject. Subject benchmark statements exist for a range of honours degree subjects and some combine or refer to professional standards required by external professional or regulatory bodies in the relevant discipline. 

Programme credits

The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) is a framework based on the outcomes represented by the main qualification titles. It is not an integrated credit and qualifications framework, nor is its use dependent on credit. However, most higher education institutions (HEIs) in England also use credit-based systems alongside the FHEQ. Of these, some use the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS).

All UK credit frameworks (other than the ECTS) operate according to the same underpinning principles. For example, 10 notional hours of learning equate to one credit, and 120 credits to a volume of learning that a learner in the first cycle will spend, on average, to achieve the specified learning outcomes in one academic year. Bachelor’s degrees awarded with honours have a typical total volume of at least 360 credits.

Guidance on the use of credit in the design of programmes is provided in the course design and development advice document published by the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) as part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education

Programme composition and variability

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) provides details via its website of the wide variety of courses offered. Although programmes typically focus on a particular subject area, there are also combined studies programmes involving two, or possibly three, specialisations. There is also normally choice within each programme. Typically, a relatively fixed menu of modules covers the core knowledge of the subject, and is combined with a menu of options in the more specialised aspects of the subject area.

The terminology used in this area varies considerably, as higher education is a diverse sector made up of autonomous providers who use different approaches to the definition of academic regulations. Some of these different approaches can be summarised as follows. 

  • A student registers on a course made up of compulsory modules and optional modules that leads to the award of a qualification.  
  • A student registers on a programme made up of compulsory modules and optional modules that leads to the award of a qualification.  
  • A student registers on a course that awards credit that can be counted towards a qualification. 

For a more detailed consideration of the variety of interpretations and models that exist across the sector, see the December 2011 report by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), What is a Course?.

Although many higher education institutions (HEIs) offer courses across the full range of subject areas, some specialise in certain fields, such as music, art or business. Institutions that were originally set up as institutes of technology, for example, and which subsequently gained university title, tend to retain a strong focus on their original specialism.

Admission requirements

Institutions determine their own admissions policies and the minimum entry requirements for each programme. Entry is competitive, with wide variations between institutions and programmes in terms of the competition for places. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) coordinates admissions across the UK. UCAS is funded by participating higher education institutions (HEIs) and from the fees paid by each applicant.

In collaboration with the UK higher education sector, UCAS has developed the ‘UCAS Tariff’, which is a means of allocating points to post-16 qualifications used for entry to higher education. This was developed to allow HEIs to make broad comparisons of the wide range of available qualifications and to help with management information. HEIs are not obliged to express their entry requirements in terms of UCAS tariff points. Those that do may additionally require some or all of the qualifications for entry to be in specific subjects and at specific grades.

For undergraduate / first cycle programmes, the minimum entry requirement is usually two or three A Level passes, as well as a minimum number of GCSE passes at specific grades. Although these remain the most common form of entry qualification held by young entrants to higher education, a wide range of other qualifications is acceptable for entry. They include the International Baccalaureate and some vocational options such as Applied General Qualifications or BTEC National Qualifications.

Most applicants submit their higher education applications before taking end-of-course examinations, and HEIs make most offers of places conditional upon the applicant achieving at least a specified number of UCAS tariff points. They may also stipulate particular grades or levels of pass in key subjects. To decide who should receive offers, HEI admissions officers typically use applicants’ known results in GCSE and / or AS Level examinations to assess their potential. They also consider personal statements, school references and teachers’ predictions of likely grades. HEIs do not routinely interview applicants for most programmes. However, applicants for entry to professional and vocational programmes (such as initial teacher training and medicine) are usually required to attend a selection interview, as are all applicants to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

For some highly oversubscribed programmes, such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and law, applicants may be required to take an additional admissions test. Examples of such tests include the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) and the University Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT). Since 2013, all applicants for initial teacher training courses have been required to pass professional skills tests in numeracy and literacy before starting their courses. 

HEIs may also make ‘unconditional offers’, meaning that the applicant has no requirements to meet to secure their place, such as achieving particular A Level grades. Analysis by UCAS indicates that this practice has become more common in recent years.

Information for applicants on programmes and entry requirements is available from UCAS, and guidance for HEIs exists in ‘Advice and Guidance: Admissions, Recruitment and Widening Access’ in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

Widening participation

Although individual higher education institutions (HEIs) have autonomy over the qualifications they will accept for entry to their courses, at the same time and over several decades, the broad policy objective of facilitating access to higher education for disadvantaged and under-represented groups has been a focus for government policy.

‘Fair access’ is understood in English higher education as providing everyone who has the potential and ambition to succeed in higher education with equal opportunity and support to do so, regardless of background, family income or disability.

The Office for Students (OfS) holds the regulatory function with respect to widening participation. This executive non-departmental public body of the Department for Education (DfE) superseded two previous regulatory bodies in April 2018 – the Office for Fair Access and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The OfS was established under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

All providers of higher education wishing to charge above the basic tuition fee amount are required to have these access and participation plans, which set out the measures they will take to improve equality of opportunity for under-represented groups to access, succeed in and progress from higher education. The OfS has published guidance (Regulatory Notice 1) and good practice advice (Regulatory Advice 6) for HEIs on producing them.

The Open University, which specialises in ‘supported open’ (distance) learning, has published a five-point plan identifying how the OfS can improve the chances of those from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university.

Historical note: The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) was established under the Higher Education Act 2004 to ensure that the introduction of higher tuition fees in 2006/07 did not deter people from entering higher education for financial reasons. It also had a role in ensuring that higher education institutions (HEIs) were explicitly committed to increasing participation in higher education among under-represented groups. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)’s roles included distributing public money to HEIs and acting as the lead regulator for higher education in England.

Mature learners

For mature students, who may lack formal qualifications, there are well-established routes into higher education. Many higher education institutions (HEIs) give credit for prior study and informal learning acquired through work or other experiences, called ‘Accreditation of Prior Learning’ (APL). Arrangements for APL vary between individual HEIs; institutions have autonomy in this respect. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) UK Quality Code for Higher Education advice and guidance document on admissions, recruitment and widening access does not specify the criteria to be used for selection, but encourages each institution to ensure that its policies and procedures are fair, reliable and appropriate. It also prompts them to adapt their processes to cater for different types of student.

The Access to Higher Education Diploma provides an alternative fast-track route designed to meet the needs of those returning to study after some time and who may lack formal qualifications.

Student number control

There is no cap (limit) on the numbers of students which government-funded institutions, or alternative providers with their own degree awarding powers, may admit. Caps – or ‘student number control’ – were removed for these providers in 2015/16, as part of the Government’s policy commitment, expressed in the 2015 productivity plan Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation, to ensure that anyone with the right qualifications can study at university.

The same plan also included a commitment to free up student number controls for the best alternative providers without degree awarding powers, by introducing a ‘performance pool’ of places from 2016-17. These alternative providers may apply for an extra allocation of places from the pool if they meet criteria relating to their academic standards, their plans to improve student choice, and their capacity to deliver growth without having a negative impact on existing students. DfE guidance for alternative providers (2017) includes a summary of how student number control mechanisms and the performance pool operate following the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

Curriculum

There is no national curriculum for higher education. Higher education providers decide what programmes to offer within the context of their organisational mission and other strategic factors. These factors may include government policy to stimulate economic growth and to support high-cost subjects, such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects; an assessment of student demand for existing and new programmes; and advice from external bodies such as employers and industry about workforce needs.

Providers that hold degree awarding powers (DAP) design their own programmes with reference to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) UK Quality Code for Higher Education. This includes advice and guidance on the expectations and practices providers must adhere to with regard to course design and development. They are also expected to comply with the specifications for threshold academic standards set out in the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) for programmes at the relevant level of the framework. Providers without their own DAP do not design their own programmes, but act as delivery organisations working with bodies with degree awarding powers.

The QAA also provides subject benchmark statements, which set out expectations about standards of degrees in a range of subject areas. They describe what gives a discipline its coherence and identity, and define what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the abilities and skills needed to develop understanding or competence in the subject. The statements are intended to assist those involved in programme design, delivery and review. They are integral to the UK Quality Code for Higher Education –see the advice and guidance document on assessment.

Teaching methods

Teaching methods are decided by the individual lecturer, department, faculty or institution, or a combination of these. Depending on the subject, mode of delivery and institution, they may include the following:

  • lecture – a presentation or talk on a particular topic
  • seminar – a discussion or classroom session that focuses on a particular topic or project
  • webinar – a virtual lecture or seminar
  • tutorial – a meeting that involves one-to-one or small group supervision, feedback or detailed discussion on a particular topic or project
  • project supervision – a meeting with a supervisor to discuss a particular piece of work
  • demonstration – a session in which a practical technique or skill is demonstrated
  • practical class or workshop – a session involving the acquisition, through practical application, of a particular skill or technique
  • supervised time in studio / workshop – time in which students work independently but under supervision, in a specialist facility
  • fieldwork – practical work conducted at an external site
  • external visit – a visit to a location away from the usual learning spaces, to experience a particular environment, event, or exhibition relevant to the course of study
  • work-based and placement learning – learning that takes place in the workplace.

Source: Explaining Staff Teaching Qualifications: Guidance about Providing Information for Students (QAA, 2013, Appendix 3).

As outlined in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education advice and guidance document on learning and teaching (p. 2), there are two expectations for quality.

‘Courses are well designed, provide a high-quality academic experience for all students and enable a student’s achievement to be reliably assessed. Effective learning and teaching combines robust pedagogic approaches with relevant discipline knowledge, subject-specific and transferable skills, aligned to providers’ descriptors of graduate attributes, appropriate to the academic level of study and reflective of the changing world. Learning and teaching displays breadth, depth, pace and challenge.

From admission through to completion, all students are provided with the support that they need to succeed in and benefit from higher education. Staff are appropriately supported and developed, in turn, to support their students. Learning and teaching activity is inclusive in its approach, providing all students with parity of quality of learning opportunities, ensuring they are appropriately supported to flourish.’

Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework

The Government has placed a renewed focus on the quality of teaching in higher education, introducing the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) in 2016. It includes a set of outcome-focused criteria and metrics, underpinned by an external assessment process undertaken by an independent quality body. It encourages high-quality teaching by financially rewarding higher education institutions (HEIs) that are identified as delivering excellent quality teaching; they are allowed to increase their fees subject to a cap (limit) determined by the Department for Education (DfE). Operation of the TEF is one of the responsibilities of the Office for Students (OfS). The TEF, which was originally known as the Teaching Excellence Framework, mirrors the excellence framework that already existed for university-based research.

Flexible, open and distance learning

Flexible learning – accessing education in a way that is responsive in pace, place and / or mode of delivery, and that is often supported by the use of credit accumulation and transfer – is available in higher education. It can include the use of technology to enable:

  • remote or online study
  • work-based learning and employer engagement
  • part-time learning
  • accelerated or decelerated programmes
  • distance or blended learning.

The Higher Education Academy (HEA), part of the sector development body Advance HE, provides a range of resources for higher education institutions (HEIs) developing flexible provision.

Open and distance learning is available. The Open University, which was established in 1969 and specialises in ‘supported open learning’, admitted its first students in 1971 and is now a major provider of distance learning and the UK’s largest university in terms of student numbers. Other institutions increasingly offer courses on this basis.

The Open University is also involved in the provision of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), offered free and at scale through its company FutureLearn, launched in 2013. A wide range of UK and international universities and other partners, such as specialist organisations, offer courses through FutureLearn and other similar online platforms.

An independent review of post-18 education and funding undertaken by Philip Augar, for which the final report was published in May 2019, includes recommendations to increase flexibility and lifetime learning, and to encourage part-time, distance and work-based study options.

Progression of students

Each institution has its own regulations governing student progression within a programme. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) provides advice and guidance as part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. For example, the advice and guidance document on enabling student achievement recommends that institutions support students from their admission and transition into higher education (HE) to their completion and transmission out of HE by, for example:

  • engaging students with managing their own progression
  • reinforcing transition and progression through the student lifecycle
  • identifying the staff roles that are integral to enabling student progression.

Guidance at institutional and programme level can support implementation of this recommendation by referencing the following areas.

  • The extent to which a student’s overall success in a programme can include failure in part of the programme, where this is permitted by institutional rules and regulations. In modular systems, guidance can helpfully distinguish between core and optional modules and include details about any modules that must be passed to meet Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body (PSRB) requirements.
  • Defining those marks that contribute to the decision about whether a student receives an award.  
  • Clarifying the basis on which:
    • retakes or resubmissions can occur, and making clear the number, timing and procedures for these
    • resubmitting a dissertation can occur
    • repeating a work-based or other type of practical assessment can occur
    • repeating an oral examination can occur. 
  • The rules for deferring or not completing an assessment, together with any special assessment conditions or penalties that may apply, including any restriction on the marks, grades or levels of award that can be obtained on the basis of retaken or deferred assessments. They should clearly state any time limit for completing the course.

Employability

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has defined employability as:

‘a set of attributes, skills and knowledge that all labour market participants should possess to ensure that they have the capability of being effective in the workplace – to the benefit of themselves, their employer and the wider economy’. 

This definition is cited in Future Fit: Preparing Graduates for the World of Work, a 2009 joint publication from Universities UK and the CBI, illustrating how universities and business can work together to help equip graduates for their future working lives (page 8).

Collaboration with business

There have been a number of inquiries and reports addressing business and university interaction in recent years. These have found that differences across industry sectors and across higher education institutions (HEIs) mean that there is no single model of effective collaboration. Notable reports include those listed below.

  • A Review of Business-University Collaboration (the Wilson review), an independent review published in 2012, called for universities to be at the heart of the economy, to promote growth in the UK and to improve the employability of graduates by, for example, increasing opportunities for students to acquire relevant work experience. The Government’s response set out initiatives to promote employability skills, research and innovation, work placements and internships, and university-business collaboration.
  • Forging Futures: Building Higher Level Skills through University and Employer Collaboration (2014) explored innovative collaborations between universities and employers to create alternative pathways and opportunities for the development of relevant higher level skills. It was published by Universities UK and the (then) UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES).
  • Business-University Collaboration (2014), published by the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, called for a coordinated strategy to improve information flows between universities and business, and to provide spaces for collaboration to take place. The Government’s response reiterated its commitment to supporting all forms of knowledge exchange, including providing recurrent funding through the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) for knowledge exchange. The HEIF supports institutions to engage in a broad range of activities with business, public sector and community partners.
  • Accessibility, utility and learning effects in university-business collaboration (2017), published by the Enterprise Research Centre, examined the trade-off between the accessibility of university knowledge and how it suits the needs of local firms. It argued that university collaborations are valuable for innovation and that significant benefits can be reaped by businesses establishing relationships with universities beyond their local area.

The Higher Education Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI) survey examines annually how universities collaborate with commerce, community bodies and the public sector in all four nations of the UK.The National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) also publishes an annual ‘State of the Relationship’ report that provides examples of collaboration between universities, business and policy makers.

The Government also stated its intention to support universities in collaborating with industry and commercialising research in its productivity plan, Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation (2015). A number of tools have since been launched to support this aim.

  • The Lambert Toolkit, launched in 2016, facilitates negotiations between potential partners and includes examples of best practice to support innovation.
  • Placer, launched in 2017, connects students seeking work experience with employers offering such opportunities.
  • konfer, also launched in 2017, promotes university-business collaboration by providing businesses with research, researchers and services in UK universities, and universities with potential project partners.

In October 2017, the Government announced the development of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), with the aim of introducing a performance assessment for knowledge exchange that mirrors those for university teaching (the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, TEF) and research (the Research Excellence Framework, REF). The KEF will bring together a range of measures of impact from higher education institutions’ collaboration and knowledge exchange work, enabling them to benchmark and develop their own performance, and increasing their accountability to taxpayers, local government and businesses. Consultation on proposals for the KEF ended in March 2019, and decisions on implementation are due to be published in late 2019.

Also in 2017, the Government published its Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain Fit for the Future. In this White Paper, which aims to increase productivity and drive growth across the UK, the Government outlined the ‘need to be able to capture the value from […] science, research and creativity and support innovations that drive […] productivity.’ It pledged to ‘do more to address some of the frictions in the system to support collaboration and the flow of knowledge between research and industry, accelerating the path to market.’ (p. 72)

Apprenticeships

The development of higher level apprenticeships (at Level 4 and Level 5 of the Regulated Qualifications Framework, RQF), and of degree apprenticeships (Level 6 and Level 7), aims to widen access to the professions, and develop the higher level technical skills needed to improve productivity and support businesses to compete internationally.

Degree apprenticeships involve employers, universities and relevant professional bodies co-designing apprenticeships which meet full occupational competency and include a degree (bachelor’s or master’s). The Government has published guidance for students, which outlines the range of higher and degree level apprenticeships available, participating higher education institutions (HEIs) and employers, career prospects, and how to apply.

For further information, see the (January 2019) House of Commons Library briefing on apprenticeships policy in England.

Careers advice

All higher education institutions (HEIs) in England provide a careers service for students. Advisers usually take a student through the careers choices that they can follow with their degree and the direction they can take. They discuss career opportunities such as graduate placements, further study opportunities, careers fairs and job opportunities abroad. Students can still contact the service after graduation and may be referred to a university closer to where they then live. University careers services may also offer free CV workshops, internet access, coaching on interview techniques, and support with job application forms. Careers fairs provide graduates and undergraduates with information and give them an opportunity to meet potential employers.

Careers services can receive support by subscribing to the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU), an independent research charity that works as an agency of the higher education representative bodies Universities UK and GuildHE. The HECSU also conducts and commissions research on student and graduate career development and employment.

The UK Quality Code for Higher Education advice and guidance document on enabling student achievement addresses the ways in which higher education providers should enable students to develop and achieve their academic, personal and professional potential. Student achievements other than academic achievements may be recorded using the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), which is described under the subheading ‘Certification’ below.

Student assessment

Assessment procedures are decided by the individual institution. They typically involve a variety of modes of assessment, which may include examinations, essays, multiple-choice tests, reflective journals, peer assessment, portfolios, and assessment of performance and creative work.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) provides guidance on good practice in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. The advice and guidance document on assessment includes information on the expectations and practices that higher education institutions (HEIs) are required to work towards with regard to all forms of assessment in the context of taught provision.

The QAA publication Explaining Staff Teaching Qualifications (2013) provides an indicative list of assessment methods (Appendix 4):

  • written examination – a question or set of questions relating to a particular area of study
  • written assignment, including essay – an exercise completed in writing in the student’s own time
  • report – a description, summary or other account of an experience or activity
  • dissertation – an extended piece of written work, usually for purposes of summative assessment
  • portfolio – a compilation of coursework produced in response to specific assessment briefs
  • project outputs – the products of project work, often of a practical nature (excluding report / dissertation)
  • oral assessment / presentation – a conversation or oral presentation on a given topic
  • practical skills assessment – assessment of a student’s practical skills or competence
  • group critique – a method of receiving feedback from both tutors and peers
  • set exercises – questions or tasks designed to assess the application of knowledge or of analytical, problem-solving or evaluative skills.

External examining provides one of the principal means of maintaining nationally comparable standards within autonomous higher education institutions (HEIs). The assessment procedures include the appointment of one or more external examiners for each subject. Their role is to give an additional opinion on the performance of candidates for degrees. This ensures comparability of standards between universities, and that the examination system and the award of degree classifications is fairly operated. External examiners are usually senior members of the teaching staff of a similar department in another university. The QAA provides guidance in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

Certification 

Subject to the status of their degree awarding powers (DAP), institutions are responsible for their own awards (qualifications), the conditions on which they are awarded, and qualification titles. Guidance is provided by the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), developed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA).The FHEQ includes qualification descriptors that set out the generic outcomes and attributes expected for the award of bachelor’s degrees.

Qualification titles for bachelor’s degrees include:  

  • Bachelor of Arts, abbreviated to BA   
  • Bachelor of Science, abbreviated to BSc   
  • Bachelor of Education, abbreviated to BEd. 

Institutions traditionally use the same system of classifying (i.e. grading) student attainment in programmes leading to a bachelor’s degree with honours. The honours degree classification system has four points on the scale: first class; second class, which is subdivided into upper second (2:1) and lower second (2:2); and third class. In addition, institutions may award a ‘pass’ degree, which does not carry honours, or a fail.

Bachelor’s degrees awarded with honours may be designated as BA (Hons), BSc (Hons), etc.

Higher Education Achievement Reports

A Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) is an electronic document providing a comprehensive record of the whole of a student’s achievement during his/her time in higher education. It includes an overall summative judgement (e.g. the honours degree classification, grade point average, or other), verified by the institution. The HEAR was launched in 2008, following a recommendation in the 2007 report Beyond the Honours Degree Classification (the Burgess Group Final Report).

The HEAR builds upon the European Diploma Supplement – a document accompanying a higher education diploma, and providing a standardised description of the nature, level, context, content and status of the studies completed by its holder.

HEAR’s launch in 2008 involved 18 institutions; as of 2019, 90 universities and colleges are implementing or planning to implement the HEAR. For further information, see the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) website.

Second Cycle Programmes

Second cycle programmes involve learning at a higher, more challenging level than for a first cycle (undergraduate) programme.

Second cycle qualifications at Level 7 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) include master’s degrees (such as MSc and MA) and postgraduate diplomas and certificates. The majority are taught programmes, although there are also research master’s degrees. Much of this article relates to master’s degrees, though there is also information on short programmes (graduate certificates and diplomas).

Matters of policy, funding and participation in postgraduate education are determined by the Office for Students (OfS) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), who have signed a collaboration agreement confirming how they work together in several key areas, including knowledge exchange, financial sustainability and infrastructure funding. The OfS superseded the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), while UKRI comprises the seven UK research councils, Innovate UK and Research England. Both organisations began operating in April 2018 under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

Branches of study

Master’s degrees

Master’s degrees are end-of-cycle qualifications at Level 7 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ). They are awarded after completion of taught courses or programmes of research, or a combination of both. The learning outcomes of most master’s degree courses are achieved on the basis of study equivalent to at least one full-time calendar year.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) which hold degree awarding powers are responsible for the design of their own taught and research master’s programmes, and the number of different courses offered is very high.

The power to award research degrees is granted separately from powers to award taught degrees.

In designing master’s degree programmes, HEIs refer to a range of statements and descriptors that form part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, maintained by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). These include:

  • The qualification descriptor for a higher education qualification at Level 7 on the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ): master’s degree. This describes the threshold academic standard for the qualification in terms of the levels of knowledge and understanding, and the types of abilities, that holders of this qualification are expected to have.
  • subject benchmark statement, describing what gives a discipline its coherence and identity, and defining what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the abilities and skills needed to develop understanding or competence in the subject. Subject benchmark statements exist for a range of master’s degrees where there is significant taught provision in a subject. Some combine or refer to professional standards required by external professional or regulatory bodies in the relevant discipline.

The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) is based on the outcomes represented by the main qualification titles, but it is not an integrated credit and qualifications framework, nor is its use dependent on credit. However, most higher education institutions in England use credit-based systems alongside the FHEQ. Of these, some use the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). UK credit frameworks (other than the ECTS) operate according to the same underpinning principles. Master’s degree courses typically require the achievement of 180 credits. Guidance on the use of credit in the design of programmes is provided by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education; see the advice and guidance document on course design and development.

First degrees in medicine, dentistry and veterinary science comprise an integrated programme of study and professional practice spanning several levels of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ). While the final outcomes of the qualifications themselves typically meet the expectations of the descriptor for a higher education qualification at Level 7 of the FHEQ, i.e. master’s level, these qualifications often retain titles including ‘Bachelor’, for historical reasons. Examples include the titles Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (which has various abbreviations, such as MBBS or MBChB), Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS), Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine (BVetMed), or Bachelor of Veterinary Science (BVSc).

There are also integrated master’s degrees in science, engineering, pharmacy and mathematics. These comprise a programme of study spanning several FHEQ levels, where the outcomes are normally achieved through study equivalent to four full-time academic years. In such programmes, the final qualifications again meet the expectations of the qualification descriptor for Level 7 of the FHEQ in full, but the earlier stages of the programme involve study at a level that typically meets the expectations of the qualification descriptor for Level 6.

Postgraduate certificates and diplomas

Second cycle programmes also include short courses and professional ‘conversion’ courses, usually taken by those who are already graduates in another discipline. They lead, for example, to graduate certificates or graduate diplomas at Level 6 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), such as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Graduate Diploma in Psychology (GDP).

Short second cycle programmes can also include study at Level 7 of the FHEQ, i.e. at master’s level. For example, the PGCE, awarded for initial teacher training programmes, may have the full title of either the Professional Graduate Certificate in Education (at Level 6 of the FHEQ), or the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (at Level 7). Students taking the second of these two routes gain credits at master’s level that they may use towards a master’s degree.

Admission requirements

Although individual institutions set their own admission requirements for second cycle programmes, entry to many master’s degree courses requires an upper second class bachelor’s degree (2:1). Entry to postgraduate (second cycle) certificate and diploma courses, on the other hand, does not normally require a specific class of first degree. Admission to some courses is subject to students having a certain amount of related work experience.

Applications for admission are generally made direct to the institution at which the applicant wishes to study, although a number of institutions use the UCAS Postgraduate service operated by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) to manage applications for postgraduate study. There are also certain qualifications for which application must be made via other UCAS schemes regardless of where the applicant wishes to study, such as postgraduate teacher training and master’s courses in social work and nursing.

Mature students form a substantial proportion of entrants to postgraduate education, especially to part-time postgraduate study. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) indicates that, across the UK, around two thirds of part-time postgraduate students are aged 30 or over, while only around a fifth of full-time postgraduate students are over this age. Eligibility for postgraduate student loans extends to mature students who are aged under 60 on starting their course.

Information for candidates considering taking a master’s degree is available from the OfS, which suggests a number of websites for students to visit, such as Steps to Postgraduate Study

Curriculum

There is no national curriculum for second cycle higher education and higher education providers decide what second cycle programmes to offer.

Institutions with degree awarding powers (DAP) have the autonomy to design and develop their own programmes of study. These may be taught degree awarding powers or research degree awarding powers – they are granted separately by the OfS. In designing their programmes, institutions do, however, refer to Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) UK Quality Code for Higher Education, which includes advice and guidance on the expectations and practices providers must adhere to with regard to course design and development.

Institutions with DAP are also expected to comply with the specifications for threshold academic standards set out in the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) for programmes at the relevant level of the framework.

The QAA also provides subject benchmark statements which explain the level of achievement expected at master’s level, and which are intended to assist those involved in programme design, delivery and review.

Employability

Research students are encouraged to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning during and after their programme of study, and to recognise the value of developing transferable skills.

In its productivity plan, Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation (2015), the Government stated its intention to support universities in collaborating with industry and commercialising research. For further information.

Apprenticeships

The development of degree apprenticeships, at Level 6 and Level 7 of the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF), aims to widen access to the professions, and develop the higher level technical skills needed to improve productivity and support businesses to compete internationally.

Degree apprenticeships involve employers, universities and relevant professional bodies co-designing apprenticeships which meet full occupational competency and include a degree (bachelor’s or master’s). The Government has published guidance for students, which outlines the range of degree apprenticeships available, the higher education institutions (HEIs) and employers that provide them, career prospects, and how to apply.

For further information, see the (January 2019) House of Commons Library briefing on apprenticeships policy in England.

Student assessment

Assessment procedures are decided by the individual institution and typically involve a range of methods.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) provides guidance on the assessment of taught modules and programmes in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. 

Assessment for research qualifications is different from that for taught awards, and assessment for a master’s degree by research will usually include some kind of oral examination. Guidelines on the assessment of research students are provided in the Quality Code advice and guidance document on research degrees.

External examining provides one of the principal means for maintaining nationally comparable standards within autonomous higher education institutions (HEIs). Assessment procedures include the appointment of one or more external examiners for each subject. Their role is to give an additional opinion on the performance of candidates for degrees and consequently ensure comparability of standards between universities. These examiners are usually senior members of the teaching staff of a similar department in another university.

Certification

Subject to the status of their degree awarding powers (DAP), institutions are responsible for their own awards and qualifications, the conditions on which they are awarded, and qualification titles. 

Guidance is provided by the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), developed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). Qualification descriptors set out the generic outcomes and attributes expected for the award of each type of qualification. They describe the threshold academic standards for each qualification type in terms of the levels of knowledge and understanding, and the types of abilities, that holders of the relevant qualification are expected to have.

On successful completion of a master’s degree, the grades awarded are generally distinction, merit and pass.

Master of Arts (MA) courses are normally in arts, social sciences, business or humanities subjects. A Master of Science (MSc) is awarded for science and social science courses. Other taught master’s courses include the Master of Business Administration (MBA) and the Master of Education (MEd). There are also Master of Research (MRes) courses in science and social science subjects, which combine broad training in research methods with a research project. Longer master’s courses that typically involve a more substantial element of research or equivalent enquiry often lead to the degree of ‘Master of Philosophy’ (MPhil).

The Master of Arts (MA) degrees granted by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are not academic qualifications. The MA is normally granted, on application, to graduates of these universities with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) (first degree), who become eligible six to seven years after their initial matriculation (i.e. their formal (undergraduate) admission to the university). No further study or assessment is required, but the recipient may be required to pay a fee.

Third Cycle (PhD) Programmes

Doctoral degrees are at Level 8 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ).

Matters of policy, funding and participation in postgraduate education are determined by the Office for Students (OfS) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), who have signed a collaboration agreement confirming how they work together in several key areas, including knowledge exchange, financial sustainability and infrastructure funding. The OfS superseded the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), while UKRI comprises the seven UK research councils, Innovate UK and Research England. Both organisations began operating in April 2018 under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

Organisation of doctoral studies

The degree of Doctor of Philosophy, abbreviated to PhD (or DPhil in some universities), is awarded for the creation and interpretation of new knowledge, or application of existing knowledge in a new way, at the forefront of an academic discipline (e.g. in arts, social sciences, business, humanities or science subjects). This is usually through original research. 

All doctoral degrees are expected to meet the generic statement of outcomes set out in the qualification descriptor for doctoral degrees in the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ). This sets out broad expected outcomes for a doctoral degree in terms of what graduates should be able to demonstrate, and the wider abilities that they would be expected to have developed.

Doctoral programmes generally take three to four years full-time, or five to seven years part-time, to complete. They are not typically credit-rated.

The majority of doctoral degrees are taken at universities and other higher education institutions (HEIs). However, there are some opportunities for studying in government laboratories, hospital laboratories and research institutions – in partnership with a university.

Alternative routes to PhD

The ‘New Route PhD’ or integrated PhD involves studying a one-year research master’s degree followed by a three-year PhD. It combines research with a structured programme of training in research methods and transferable professional skills.

The professional doctorate includes a significant taught component and a smaller research project. It is often taken on a part-time basis and can last anywhere between two and eight years. This type of doctorate is primarily aimed at professionals in vocational sectors such as healthcare, teaching and education, and engineering and manufacturing, whose research is expected to contribute to theory as well as professional practice.

Academics with a substantial body of experience but no PhD may apply for a ‘PhD by publication’. This involves submitting previously published work (e.g. books, book chapters, and journal articles, that together form a coherent body of work and show evidence of an original contribution to a particular field of study), together with a supporting statement.

PhDs by distance learning are offered by an increasing number of HEIs and may be taken full- or part-time.

The graduate careers website Prospects provides further information on these routes.

Admission requirements

Higher education institutions (HEIs) set their own admission requirements. Guidelines on the selection, admission and induction of students are available from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) UK Quality Code for Higher Education in the advice and guidance document on research degrees.

For doctoral research, applicants would normally be expected to have at least one of:  

  • an undergraduate degree with honours (usually class 2:1 or above) in a relevant subject  
  • a relevant master’s qualification, or equivalent evidence of prior professional practice or learning that meets the higher education provider’s criteria and guidelines for the accreditation of prior learning (APL); this may include, for example, the required amount of prior publications or other output specified for applicants for the award of the PhD by publication (see ‘Alternative routes to PhD’ above).

Information for candidates considering applying for a third cycle programme is available from the Vitae website. Vitae is a national organisation that supports the professional development of researchers.

Status of doctoral students/candidates

Doctoral candidates may have the status of students, or may hold an employment contract with their higher education institution (HEI). Traditional, supervision-based (student) doctorates are the more widespread.

Supervision arrangements

Supervision arrangements are determined by individual higher education institutions (HEIs). Guidelines are provided by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) in the advice and guidance document on research degrees, which forms part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

Employability

Research students are encouraged to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning during and after their programme of study, and to recognise the value of developing transferable skills. The advice and guidance document on research degrees, which is part of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) UK Quality Code for Higher Education, provides guidance on the support that should be offered to research postgraduate students to develop employability skills. 

In its productivity plan, Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation (2015), the Government stated its intention to support universities in collaborating with industry and commercialising research. For further information. 

Assessment

Assessment procedures for research qualifications are different from those for taught awards and usually include some kind of oral examination. Doctoral candidates are examined on the basis of an appropriate body of work and an oral examination (viva voce), in which they defend their thesis to a panel of academics who are experts in the field.

External examining provides one of the principal means for maintaining nationally comparable standards within autonomous higher education institutions (HEIs). The assessment procedures include the appointment of one or more external examiners for each subject. Their role is to give an additional opinion on the performance of candidates for degrees. This aims to ensure comparability of standards between universities, and that the examination system and the award of degree classifications are fairly operated. External examiners are usually senior members of the teaching staff of a similar department in another university.

The advice and guidance document on research degrees provided by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) as part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education provides guidance on assessment and external examining.

Certification

Subject to the status of their degree awarding powers (DAP), HEIs are responsible for their own awards and qualifications, the conditions on which they are awarded, and qualification titles. Guidance is provided by the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), alongside qualification descriptors which set out the generic outcomes and attributes expected for the award of doctoral degrees (page 30).

Qualification titles for doctoral degrees include:  

  • Doctor of Philosophy, abbreviated to PhD or DPhil   
  • Doctor of Education, abbreviated to EdD   
  • Doctor of Clinical Psychology, abbreviated to DClinPsy   
  • Doctor of Engineering, abbreviated to EngD or DEng   
  • Doctor of Business Administration, abbreviated to DBA. 

Honorary doctorates are not academic qualifications.

Organisational variation

Open and distance learning is also available. The Open University, for example, which specialises in ‘supported open learning’, offers doctoral programmes. PhD qualifications taken through the Open University involve a four-year period of full-time study, or a maximum of six years part-time. 

Higher doctorates may be awarded in recognition of a substantial body of original research undertaken over the course of many years. Typically, a portfolio of work that has been previously published in a peer-refereed context is submitted for assessment. Most higher education awarding bodies restrict candidacy to graduates or academic staff of several years’ standing.

Mobility in Higher Education

Strategies and actions may be cross-sectoral, so this article should be read in conjunction with the ‘Introduction: Mobility and Internationalisation’.

Student mobility 

There are a number of mobility opportunities for students in higher education (HE)

Erasmus+, the European Union (EU) programme for education, training, youth and sport from 2014-2020, is key. 

Under Key Action 1 of Erasmus+, which focuses on the mobility of individuals, HE students in England can receive funding to undertake:

  • a study period in a programme country abroad lasting between 3 and 12 months
  • a traineeship (work placement) abroad lasting between 2 and 12 months.

Recent graduates can also undertake a 2- to 12-month traineeship in selected countries, within 12 months of graduating. They must be selected by their higher education institution (HEI) during their last year of study.

The UK Government supports outward student mobility through the Erasmus+ fee waiver, under which students leaving the UK to study abroad under the Erasmus+ (or a similar) programme are not charged fees by the welcoming institution. Under arrangements which came into force in the academic year 2014/15, students studying abroad for a whole academic year are charged a reduced tuition fee rate (15% of the usual rate) by their home HEI. Loans are available to eligible students to cover the cost of the fees.

Since 2015, UK HEIs holding the Erasmus Charter for Higher Education (ECHE) have also been able to apply for funding to support student (and staff) mobility to and from ‘partner countries’. This is made possible through an activity under Key Action 1 of Erasmus+, called International Credit Mobility. Students may study abroad for a minimum of 3 months and a maximum of 12, and may benefit from an Erasmus+ grant to help with living costs. Since 2018, they have also been able to take part in a traineeship in a partner country for a minimum of 2 months and a maximum of 12.

Capacity building activities in the field of higher education under Key Action 2 of Erasmus+, which focuses on cooperation for innovation and the exchange of good practice, may also include a special mobility strand for students. Further information is available on the Erasmus+ website.

Note: Following the 2016 UK referendum on its membership of the European Union, the UK is due to leave the EU on 31 January 2020. The Withdrawal Agreement ensures that UK entities’ right to participate in EU programmes – such as Erasmus+ – would be unaffected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU until the current programmes end in 2020, and for the lifetime of individual projects. In the event that the UK leaves the EU without a deal, the Government’s guarantee will cover the payment of awards to UK applicants for all successful Erasmus+ bids for the lifetime of those projects. Successful bids are those that are approved directly by the European Commission or by the UK National Agency and ratified by the European Commission. Further information is available via the Erasmus+ Brexit webpage.

For more information on Erasmus+ in the UK, see the website for the UK National Agency for Erasmus+, a partnership between the British Council and Ecorys UK.

Outside the framework of Erasmus+, opportunities for students to work as teaching / language assistants are available through the British Council. The programmes aim both to improve the language ability of the assistants and to expand their cultural awareness. In many cases, English language assistants are students undertaking a four-year bachelor’s degree in a modern language, which includes a requirement for them to spend a year in the target language country. The programmes cover:

  • Asia: China
  • Europe: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland
  • Latin America: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico
  • North America: Canada (Québec).

IAESTE (International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience) provides science, engineering, technology and applied arts undergraduates with training experience abroad relevant to their studies. IAESTE arranges paid course-related training abroad, generally in the summer, on a reciprocal exchange basis. The programme is administered by the British Council.

There are also bilateral programmes which support outward student mobility in specific areas, including:

Many higher education providers also offer opportunities for student mobility through bilateral exchange programmes, which they run with partner institutions worldwide.

The UK Government supports outward mobility through its student finance offer. A student may, for example, be eligible for maintenance loan and / or tuition fee loan support if studying abroad, provided that he / she is attending a university abroad for at least half of each academic term. Students undertaking a work placement abroad may also be eligible for support.

HEIs typically provide information about opportunities to study abroad through an international and study abroad office. Additional sources of support and information about international mobility include:

  • Eurodesk, part of an information and support network on opportunities in Europe aimed at young people and youth organisations 
  • Study and work abroad opportunities signposted by the British Council, aimed at young people and professionals wishing to study or work abroad
  • Europass, which facilitates mobility opportunities by helping individuals present their qualifications and CV in a format which is accessible to an international audience. 

Academic staff mobility 

Through Key Action 1 of Erasmus+, the European Union (EU) programme for education, training, youth and sport, higher education staff can receive funding to undertake:

  • teaching periods abroad – staff deliver teaching at an overseas higher education institution (HEI)
  • training periods abroad – staff undertake training / job shadowing / observation in a relevant overseas organisation.

Funding can be used to support staff engaged in both teaching and non-teaching roles, and staff mobility activities can last from two days to two months, excluding travel time. Staff teaching as part of their mobility must complete a minimum of eight hours’ teaching per week.

For more information see the website for the UK National Agency for Erasmus+.

Since 2015, UK HEIs holding the Erasmus Charter for Higher Education (ECHE) have also been able to apply for funding to support student and staff mobility to and from ‘partner countries’, which neighbour the EU. This is made possible under the International Credit Mobility strand of Key Action 1 of Erasmus+.

Just as for students, capacity building activities in the field of higher education under Key Action 2 of Erasmus+, which focuses on cooperation for innovation and the exchange of good practice, may include a special mobility strand for staff. The Erasmus+ website provides further information.

For researchers specifically, the European Research Area (ERA), which was launched in 2000, aims to facilitate transnational cooperation and competition in the area of research, and create an open labour market for researchers across Europe.

As a specific example, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA), part of Horizon 2020 (the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation), offer a set of mobility grants for research training in any field, as well as career and knowledge exchange opportunities through cross-border and cross-sector mobility for researchers. The MSCA are for researchers at all stages of their career, and seek to break down the barriers which exist between the academic world and other sectors, particularly business.

The Withdrawal Agreement ensures that UK entities’ right to participate in EU programmes – such as Erasmus+ – would be unaffected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU until the current programmes end in 2020, and for the lifetime of individual projects.

United Kingdom – Northern Ireland

Higher Education

The definition of higher education, according to Schedule 1 of the Further Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, is education at a higher standard than the standard of courses leading to General Certificate of Education Advanced level (A Level), or Business and Technology Education Council National Certificate or National Diploma. These are qualifications at Level 3 on the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF)

Higher education courses can be provided by higher education institutions (HEIs) funded directly through the Department for the Economy (DfE), or by further education institutions. The article on ‘Types of Higher Education Institutions’ describes the different types of institution, and the remaining articles in the chapter focus on the range of programmes and levels of study that feature in the system.

Higher education in Northern Ireland shares a number of characteristics and structural features with higher education in England, Wales and Scotland. In all four parts of the United Kingdom, HEIs are autonomous self-governing bodies, which offer degrees by virtue of their own degree awarding powers (DAPs) or the degree awarding powers of another institution. These degree awarding powers are recognised by the UK authorities (Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies, UK and Scottish Parliaments). Institutions are responsible for appointing and employing their own staff.

Reflecting these commonalities and shared missions, a number of sector-led bodies operate on behalf of higher education institutions across the UK. These bodies include:

  • Universities UK (UUK), whose members are the executive heads of UK institutions
  • GuildHE which, along with UUK, is a recognised representative body for higher education in the UK
  • the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which coordinates student applications services across the UK
  • the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), which collects data from higher education providers to support UK governments and higher education funding bodies in their regulatory and funding work
  • Advance HEasector agency promoting equality and diversity, learning and teaching, and leadership and governance in higher education – since March 2018, it has included the Higher Education Academy (HEA), which offers professional development opportunities and accreditation for courses that support staff who teach and / or support learning
  • the Committee of University Chairs (CUC), which represents the chairs of UK university governing bodies, and develops and promotes governance standards for higher education in the UK.

Assessment of research operates on a UK-wide basis through the Research Excellence Framework (REF), although there are differences in the way the funding bodies use the results to allocate funding for research infrastructure.

Grants for specific research projects and programmes are administered on a UK-wide basis by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a body established in 2018 following the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

Within the context of institutional autonomy, some common approaches and frameworks are used. There is no system for the accreditation of institutions, but the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) makes judgements on UK institutions’ capability to manage their own quality and standards and the UK Quality Code for Higher Education provides the definitive reference point for institutions.

In addition to the commonalities, there are also some differences in higher education provision in the UK. The most notable of these are differences in tuition fees and student support, the funding of institutions and governance arrangements. These divergences have developed, in particular, since the late 1990s when the devolved administrations of Northern Ireland and Wales took on responsibility for education.

In Northern Ireland, in contrast to England and Wales, where the largest component of higher education funding now comes from student tuition fees, government grants are still the largest single component of funding, contributing more than tuition fees. These annual grants are allocated and distributed directly by the Department for the Economy (DfE).

Policy objectives for higher education 

The power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland collapsed in January 2017, since when the Northern Ireland Assembly has not been sitting and there are no executive ministers. Much of the following policy context has seen little shift within that period.

The Northern Ireland government department with responsibility for higher education is the Department for the Economy (DfE), which was formed in May 2016. The DfE encompasses the functions of the former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) and of the former Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), with the exception of the Employment Service. The DfE continues to apply the key higher education strategy documents published by the DEL under the 2011–2016 Northern Ireland Assembly. These specific strategies for higher education, which are summarised below, are complemented by several more that address the wider skills landscape and aim to enhance the Northern Irish economy. They include the skills strategy, Success through Skills (2011); the appenticeships strategy, Securing our Success (2014), and the economic and innovation strategies for Northern Ireland, which are described under the subheading ‘Employability’ in the article ‘Bachelor’.

Higher education strategy 

Graduating to Success: a Higher Education Strategy for Northern Ireland (May 2012) provides a long-term vision for the higher education sector in Northern Ireland, setting out the direction for higher education policy up to 2020. It aims for the sector to be recognised for:

  • its ability to equip individuals with the distinctive range and quality of skills and attributes needed for an increasingly competitive international workplace
  • its excellence in research
  • its willingness to work in partnership with industry to promote knowledge transfer and drive innovation
  • the professionalism of its teaching and its commitment to quality
  • its support for students and its fairness in maximising opportunities for all who are able to benefit
  • its accessibility to learners and its engagement with local communities, contributing to their regeneration, diversity and sustainability
  • its flexibility in responding to the needs of learners and other stakeholders, including business
  • its willingness to engage globally
  • the rigour of its governance.

The document also sets out how the Department and the higher education sector intend to realise the vision for higher education.

Widening participation strategy 

Access to Success, published in September 2012, outlines an integrated strategy for widening participation in higher education in Northern Ireland up to 2020. The key actions contained in Access to Success include:

  • studying educational attainment over time to identify patterns of disadvantage among applicants to higher education
  • reviewing and improving the mechanisms used to gather comprehensive and reliable data on access to, and participation in, higher education
  • developing an awareness raising programme to increase the profile and relevance of higher education and skills in under-represented communities and in the workplace
  • expanding the range of programmes available in schools, colleges, communities and workplaces aimed at raising aspiration and attainment
  • requiring higher education institutions (HEIs) to actively monitor the attendance of all students in receipt of widening participation support
  • supporting HEIs to develop additional support measures for students to sustain continuing participation
  • developing a single Widening Access and Participation Plan (WAPP) which will be submitted annually for approval by all funded fee charging institutions offering higher education courses – each plan summarises an institution’s widening participation strategy and provides a programme of actions and targets for improving representation from under-represented groups in the coming year.

Widening participation was a key strategic goal for the former Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) and remains so for the Department for the Economy (DfE), whose priorities for higher education finance and governance include increasing participation and widening access, particularly from groups who are under-represented in higher education. The WAPPs for Northern Ireland’s further education colleges, universities and university colleges can be found on the Department for the Economy’s website.

For an overview of recent shifts and trends in higher education in Northern Ireland, see the Universities UK publication Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education 2018, the latest in a series which provides a summary of annual statistical data about the UK higher education sector in the context of the trends of the previous decade.

Funding priorities for higher education 

While higher education institutions (HEIs) are autonomous bodies, with responsibility for how they make use of their government grants, their funding allocations in recent years have been made in the context of the following aims:

  • to enhance research capabilities and research quality
  • to support them in achieving long-term sustainability
  • to exploit fully the contribution which they can make to the economy and, in particular, to increase their responsiveness to the needs of business and the community
  • to increase participation and widen access, particularly from groups who are under-represented in higher education
  • to improve the quality and standards of teaching and learning alongside promoting greater flexibility in delivery
  • to ensure effective governance.

Sustainability of the higher education sector 

In September 2015, the then Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) launched the ‘Big Conversation’, a consultation on the future sustainability of the higher education system in the context of public spending constraints. The consultation addressed the skills needs of the economy; the quality and accessibility of higher education; sources of funding; the operation and repayment of student loans; and Northern Ireland’s funding model compared with models used in other education systems. It resulted in an options paper, Securing a Sustainable Solution for Higher Education in Northern Ireland, which presented three future funding scenarios: increased public investment; increased student contributions; or increases in both elements.

Legislative framework 

Higher education is a devolved area, which means that most decisions about higher education policy in Northern Ireland are taken by the Northern Ireland Assembly. For an analysis of the impact of devolution on higher education in Northern Ireland, see the Universities UK (UUK) 2008 research report, Devolution and Higher Education.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) in Northern Ireland are autonomous self-governing bodies. The structure of programmes is not regulated by law. Subject to the status of their degree awarding powers (DAPs), HEIs are free to design and offer such programmes and awards as they wish. However, all institutions structure their programmes along broadly similar lines (a three-cycle framework, incorporating undergraduatepostgraduate and doctoral study), which conforms to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) qualifications framework.

Quality assurance in higher education is not regulated by law. HEIs are responsible for the approval of their own programmes and for ensuring that appropriate standards are achieved. They are judged on how well they fulfil these responsibilities and the effectiveness of their processes by the (UK) Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). The main reference point for the QAA’s review work is the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. This sets out the expectations that all providers of UK higher education are required to meet, and provides them with a shared starting point for setting, describing and assuring the academic standards of their higher education awards and programmes, and the quality of the learning opportunities they provide.

The Department for the Economy (DfE) distributes public funds for teaching and research infrastructure.

The current arrangements for tuition fees for full-time undergraduate students were introduced in 2006 under the Higher Education Act 2004 and the Higher Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2005. In England, changes to the regulations prescribing the maximum annual amount for tuition fees led to a significant rise in fees from 2012, but in Northern Ireland fees were ‘frozen’ subject only to inflationary rises. Tuition fees are set by individual HEIs but, for full-time undergraduate students in Northern Ireland, are limited to £4275 (€4829.96*) for the 2019/20 academic year. Fees for postgraduate students are not regulated. Public funding for research, other than research infrastructure, is not devolved to Northern Ireland; it is allocated by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) on a UK-wide basis.

 * Exchange rate used: €1 = £0.88, ECB 16 September 2019.

Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) 

Although not required by law to do so, all institutions design their qualifications in accordance with the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ). This is developed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and forms part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. The FHEQ is intended to promote consistency across the sector, by facilitating a shared and common understanding of the expectations associated with typical qualifications, and ensuring that qualifications with the same titles are of an equivalent academic standard.

The fundamental premise of the FHEQ is that qualifications should be awarded on the basis of achievement of outcomes and attainment rather than years of study.

The five levels of the FHEQ are numbered 4–8 (Levels 1–3 are allocated to levels of education that precede higher education).

Qualification descriptors illustrate the distinct level of intellectual achievement for each level of the framework. These qualification descriptors describe the threshold academic standard for those qualification types, in terms of the levels of knowledge and understanding, and the types of abilities that holders of the relevant qualification are expected to have (FHEQ, pages 19-32).

Subject benchmark statements make explicit the nature and characteristics of awards in a specific subject area and set out the attributes and capabilities of graduates in that subject. They exemplify what the generic outcomes set out in the qualification descriptors in the FHEQ might look like in practice.

The following table illustrates the main types of qualifications.

FHEQ levelCorresponding FQ-EHEA cycleTypical higher education qualifications within each level
8Third cycle (end-of-cycle) qualificationsDoctoral degrees (e.g. PhD/DPhil, EdD, DBA, DClinPsy)
7Second cycle (end-of-cycle) qualificationsMaster’s degrees (e.g. MPhil, MLitt, MRes, MA, MSc)Integrated master’s degrees (e.g. MEng, MChem, MPhys, MPharm)Primary qualifications (or first degrees) in medicine, dentistry and veterinary science (e.g. MB, ChB, MB BS, BDS, BVSc, BVMS)
7 Postgraduate diplomasPostgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) / Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE)Postgraduate certificates
6First cycle (end-of-cycle) qualificationsBachelor’s degrees with honours (e.g. BA/BSc Hons)Bachelor’s degrees
6 Professional Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE)Graduate DiplomasGraduate Certificates
5Short-cycle (within or linked to the first cycle) qualificationsFoundation Degrees (e.g. FdA, FdSc)Diplomas of Higher Education (DipHE)Higher National Diplomas (HND)
4 Higher National Certificates (HNC)Certificates of Higher Education (CertHE)

(Adapted from QAA (2014). The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies, page 17)

The FHEQ has been self-certified as compatible with the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area (FQ-EHEA).

Note: The FHEQ is not a credit framework. For a description of the use of credit in higher education in Northern Ireland.

Structure of the academic year 

The structure of the academic year is not regulated by law. However, for funding and reporting purposes, the academic year runs from 1 August to 31 July.

The teaching year typically starts in mid to late September or early October and ends in mid to late June. The year is traditionally divided by breaks into three teaching terms, although some institutions organise teaching for some courses along a two-semester system.

For postgraduate students, the organisation of time varies. Where a taught master’s programme has a duration of one year, this normally means a full calendar year, e.g. October to October.

Teaching typically takes place between 9.00 a.m. and 6.00 p.m., from Monday to Friday, but may take place at other times. Part-time courses may run during the day or in the evening.

Bachelor

Branches of study

Bachelor’s degrees with honours are the largest group of first cycle programmes (undergraduate programmes). They are often known as honours degrees, or as first degrees. Bachelor’s degrees can also be awarded without honours.

Programmes leading to a bachelor’s degree normally last three or four years for full-time students. Three years is the most common duration, but some programmes add a ‘sandwich’ or placement year (usually spent in work experience or as a year abroad, the latter being common for languages degrees). 

Higher education institutions (HEIs) which hold degree awarding powers are responsible for the design of their own programmes and awards.

Programme design

In designing bachelor’s degree programmes, HEIs refer to the qualification descriptor for a higher education qualification at Level 6 on the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ): bachelor’s degree with honours. This describes the threshold academic standard for the qualification in terms of the levels of knowledge and understanding, and the types of abilities, that holders of the qualification are expected to have.

HEIs also refer to subject benchmark statements, which set out expectations about standards of degrees in a range of subject areas. These statements, which also form part of the FHEQ, describe what gives a discipline its coherence and identity. They define what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the abilities and skills needed to develop understanding or competence in the subject. Subject benchmark statements exist for a range of honours degree subjects, and some combine or make reference to professional standards required by external professional or regulatory bodies in the relevant discipline. 

Programme credits

The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) are based on the outcomes represented by the main qualification titles. The FHEQ is, though, not an integrated credit and qualifications framework, nor is its use dependent on credit. However, most HEIs in Northern Ireland also use credit-based systems, such as the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), alongside the FHEQ.

All UK credit frameworks (other than the ECTS) operate according to the same underpinning principles. For example, 10 notional hours of learning equate to one credit, and 120 credits to a volume of learning that a learner in the first cycle will spend, on average, to achieve the specified learning outcomes in one academic year. Bachelor’s degrees awarded with honours have a typical total volume of at least 360 credits.

Guidance on the use of credit in the design of programmes is provided in the course design and development advice document published by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) as part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

Programme composition and variability

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) provides details via its website of the wide variety of courses offered. Programmes typically focus on a particular subject area, but there are also combined studies programmes involving two, or possibly three, specialisations. There is also normally choice within each programme. Typically, a relatively fixed menu of modules covers the core knowledge of the subject, and is combined with a menu of options in the more specialised aspects of the subject area.

The terminology used in this area varies considerably, as higher education is a diverse sector made up of autonomous providers who use different approaches to the definition of academic regulations. Some of the different approaches are summarised below.

  • A student registers on a course made up of compulsory modules and optional modules that leads to the award of a qualification.
  • A student registers on a programme made up of compulsory modules and optional modules that leads to the award of a qualification.
  • A student registers on a course that awards credit that can be counted towards a qualification. 

For a more detailed consideration of the variety of interpretations and models that exist, see the December 2011 report by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), What is a Course?.  

Admission requirements

Institutions determine their own admissions policies and the minimum entry requirements for each programme. Entry is competitive, with wide variations between institutions and programmes in terms of the competition for places. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) coordinates admissions across the UK. UCAS is funded by participating higher education institutions (HEIs) and from the fees paid by each applicant.

In collaboration with the UK higher education sector, UCAS has developed the ‘UCAS Tariff’, which is a means of allocating points to post-16 qualifications used for entry to higher education. This was developed to allow HEIs to make broad comparisons of the wide range of qualifications, and to help with management information. HEIs are not obliged to express their entry requirements in terms of UCAS tariff points. Those that do may additionally require some or all of the qualifications for entry to be in specific subjects and at specific grades.

For undergraduate / first cycle programmes, the minimum entry requirement is usually two or three A Level passes, as well as a minimum number of GCSE passes at specific grades. Although these remain the most common form of entry qualification held by young entrants to higher education, a wide range of other qualifications is acceptable for entry. They include the International Baccalaureate and some vocational options such as BTEC National Qualifications.

Most applicants submit their higher education applications before taking end-of-course examinations. To decide who should receive offers, HEI admissions officers typically use applicants’ known results in GCSE and / or AS Level examinations to assess their potential. They also consider personal statements, school references and teachers’ assessments of likely grades. HEIs do not routinely interview applicants for most programmes. However, applicants for entry to professional and vocational programmes (such as initial teacher training and medicine) are usually required to attend a selection interview.

For some highly oversubscribed programmes, such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and law, applicants may be required to take an additional admissions test. Examples of such tests include the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) and the University Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT).  

HEIs may also make ‘unconditional offers’, meaning that the applicant has no requirements to meet to secure their place, such as achieving particular A Level grades. Analysis by UCAS indicates that this practice has become more common in recent years.

Information for applicants on programmes and entry requirements is available from UCAS, and guidance for HEIs exists in the advice and guidance document ‘Admissions, recruitment and widening access’, which is part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

Widening participation

Although individual higher education institutions (HEIs) have autonomy over the qualifications they will accept for entry to their courses, at the same time and over several decades, the broad policy objective of facilitating access to higher education for disadvantaged and under-represented groups has been a focus for government policy across the UK.

Widening participation in higher education is among the key priorities of the Department for the Economy (DfE), which aims to ensure that all those who have the ability to benefit from higher education have the opportunity to do so, regardless of their background. The DfE is responsible for Access to Success, Northern Ireland’s strategy for widening participation in higher education, which outlines the broad policy direction and specific actions, including:

  • increasing local higher education (HE) (and further education, FE) provision
  • expanding foundation degrees
  • providing a widening participation funding premium for HEIs to help with the additional costs of retaining students who are at risk of dropping out
  • providing a widening access funding premium for HEIs to help with the costs of provision for students with disabilities
  • providing special initiative funding to develop partnerships between universities and schools with traditionally low levels of participation in HE
  • providing capital funding to assist universities in improving access for disabled students;
  • approving HEIs’ widening access and participation plans.

Widening access and participation plans provide a summary of an institution’s widening participation strategy. They include specific actions and targets (such as outreach and financial support) for improving representation from under-represented groups in the coming year. For a description of their place in the system.

Mature learners

For mature learners who may lack formal qualifications, there are well-established routes into higher education. Many higher education institutions (HEIs) give credit for prior study and informal learning acquired through work or other experiences, called ‘Accreditation of Prior Learning’ (APL). Arrangements for APL vary between individual HEIs; institutions have autonomy in this respect. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) UK Quality Code for Higher Education advice and guidance document on admissions, recruitment and widening access does not specify the criteria to be used for selection. It does, though, encourage each institution to ensure that its policies and procedures are fair, reliable and appropriate, and prompts them to adapt their processes to cater for different types of student. 

The Access to Higher Education Diploma provides an alternative fast-track route designed to meet the needs of those returning to study after some time and who may lack formal qualifications.

Student number control

The number of full-time undergraduate places at each higher education institution (HEI) is subject to a ‘cap’ (limit), as a means of controlling the cost of student support to the Department for the Economy (DfE). The cap was first introduced in 1994 and is known as the Maximum Student Numbers Cap (MaSN). The former Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) stated in Graduating to Success: a Higher Education Strategy for Northern Ireland (2012) its intention to initiate a review of MaSN policy.

Curriculum

There is no national curriculum for higher education; higher education providers decide what programmes to offer within the context of their organisational mission and other strategic factors. These factors may include government policy for higher education; an assessment of student demand for existing and new programmes; and advice from external bodies such as employers and industry about workforce needs.

Providers that hold degree awarding powers (DAP) design their own programmes with reference to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) UK Quality Code for Higher Education. This includes advice and guidance on the expectations and practices providers must adhere to with regard to course design and development. They are also expected to comply with the specifications for threshold academic standards set out in the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) for programmes at the relevant level of the framework. Providers without their own degree awarding powers do not design their own programmes, but act as delivery organisations working with bodies with DAP.

The QAA also provides subject benchmark statements, which set out expectations about standards of honours degrees in a range of subject areas. They describe what gives a discipline its coherence and identity, and define what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the abilities and skills needed to develop understanding or competence in the subject. The statements are intended to assist those involved in programme design, delivery and review. They are integral to the UK Quality Code for Higher Education – see the advice and guidance document on assessment.

Teaching methods

Teaching methods are decided by the individual lecturer, department, faculty or institution, or a combination of these. They may include the following, depending on the subject, mode of delivery and institution:

  • lecture – a presentation or talk on a particular topic
  • seminar – a discussion or classroom session that focuses on a particular topic or project
  • webinar – a virtual lecture or seminar
  • tutorial – a meeting that involves one-to-one or small group supervision, feedback or detailed discussion on a particular topic or project
  • project supervision – a meeting with a supervisor to discuss a particular piece of work
  • demonstration – a session in which a practical technique or skill is demonstrated
  • practical class or workshop – a session involving the acquisition, through practical application, of a particular skill or technique
  • supervised time in studio / workshop – time in which students work independently but under supervision, in a specialist facility
  • fieldwork – practical work conducted at an external site
  • external visit – a visit to a location away from the usual learning spaces, to experience a particular environment, event, or exhibition relevant to the course of study
  • work-based and placement learning – learning that takes place in the workplace.

Source: Explaining Staff Teaching Qualifications: Guidance about Providing Information for Students (QAA, 2013, Appendix 3).

As outlined in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education advice and guidance document on learning and teaching (p. 2), there are two expectations for quality:

‘Courses are well designed, provide a high-quality academic experience for all students and enable a student’s achievement to be reliably assessed. Effective learning and teaching combined robust pedagogic approaches with relevant discipline knowledge, subject-specific and transferable skills, aligned to providers’ descriptors of graduate attributes, appropriate to the academic level of study and reflective of the changing world. Learning and teaching displacys breadth, depth, pace and challenge.

From admission through to completion, all students are provided with the support that they need to succeed in and benefit from higher education. Staff are appropriately supported and developed, in turn, to support their students. Learning and teaching activity is inclusive in its approach, providing all students with parity of quality of learning opportunities, ensuring they are appropriately supported to flourish.’

Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework

As part of its renewed focus on teaching in higher education, the 2015-17 UK Government introduced a Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) in England, to mirror the excellence framework that already existed for university-based research. Higher education institutions (HEIs) in Northern Ireland are also able to participate in the TEF, which includes a set of outcome-focused criteria and metrics, underpinned by an external assessment process undertaken by an independent quality body. However, while in England performance on the TEF is linked to the level of fees that HEIs may charge students, this is not the case in Northern Ireland.

Flexible, open and distance learning

Flexible learning – accessing education in a way that is responsive in pace, place and / or mode of delivery, and that is often supported by the use of credit accumulation and transfer – is available in higher education. It can include the use of technology to enable:

  • remote or online study
  • work-based learning and employer engagement
  • part-time learning
  • accelerated or decelerated programmes
  • distance or blended learning.

The Higher Education Academy (HEA), part of the sector development body Advance HE, provides a range of resources for higher education institutions (HEIs) developing flexible provision.

Open and distance learning is available. The Open University, which was established in 1969 and admitted its first students in 1971, specialises in ‘supported open learning’. It is a major provider of distance learning and the UK’s largest university in terms of student numbers. Other institutions increasingly offer courses on this basis.

The Open University is also involved in the provision of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), offered free and at scale, through its company FutureLearn, launched in 2013. A wide range of UK and international universities and other partners, such as specialist organisations, offer courses through FutureLearn and other similar platforms.

Progression of students

Each institution has its own regulations governing student progression within a programme. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) provides advice and guidance as part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. For example, the advice and guidance document on enabling student achievement recommends that institutions support students from their admission and transition into higher education (HE) to their completion and transmission out of HE by, for example:

  • engaging students with managing their own progression
  • reinforcing transition and progression through the student lifecyle
  • identifying the staff roles that are integral to enabling student progression.

Guidance at institutional and programme level that includes reference to the following can support implementation of this recommendation by referencing the following areas.

  • The extent to which a student’s overall success in a programme can include failure in part of the programme, where this is permitted by institutional rules and regulations. In modular systems, guidance can helpfully distinguish between core and optional modules and include details about any modules that must be passed to meet Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body (PSRB) requirements.
  • Defining those marks that contribute to the decision about whether a student receives an award.  
  • Clarifying the basis on which:
  • retakes or resubmissions can occur, making clear the number and timing permitted and procedures
  • resubmitting a dissertation can occur
  • repeating a work-based or other type of practical assessment can occur
  • or repeating an oral examination can occur.
  • The rules for deferring or not completing an assessment, together with any special assessment conditions or penalties that may apply, including any restriction on the marks, grades or levels of award that can be obtained on the basis of retaken or deferred assessments. They should clearly state any time limit for completing the course.

Employability

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has defined employability as:

‘a set of attributes, skills and knowledge that all labour market participants should possess to ensure that they have the capability of being effective in the workplace – to the benefit of themselves, their employer and the wider economy’.

This definition is cited in Future Fit: Preparing Graduates for the World of Work, a 2009 joint publication from Universities UK and the CBI, illustrating how universities and business can work together to help equip graduates for their future working lives (page 8).

Policy statements

A range of policy and strategy documents focus on employability and higher education.

Success through Skills: Transforming Futures (2011), the ten-year skills strategy for Northern Ireland, explores the skills base, examines the skills necessary to develop the Northern Irish economy for the future, and highlights as strategic goals:

  • to increase the proportion of people in employment with Level 2Level 3 and Level 4 to Level 8 skills by 2020
  • to increase the proportion of those qualifying from higher education institutions in Northern Ireland with graduate and postgraduate qualifications in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects by 25–30% in 2020.

The Economic Strategy: Priorities for Sustainable Growth and Prosperity (2012) sets out the Northern Ireland Executive’s plan to develop a prosperous local economy over the short-, medium- and longer term to 2030. It includes a range of actions, such as the provision of learning and skills through higher and further education; increasing skills in economically important areas such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM); and supporting universities to develop research capacity and collaborate with business.

Securing our Success: the Northern Ireland Strategy on Apprenticeships (June 2014) sets an objective to establish apprenticeships as a system of employment and learning that will adapt to the particular needs of employers across a wider range of sectors and at higher levels than previously. This includes higher level apprenticeships at Level 4, Level 5 and Level 6 of the qualifications framework. The strategy, which followed a review of apprenticeships and youth training undertaken in 2013, places a primary focus on young people aged 16–24, while making apprenticeships available to individuals of all ages.

The Innovation Strategy for Northern Ireland, 2014–2025 (September 2014) expresses the Northern Ireland Executive’s vision that, by 2025:

‘Northern Ireland will be recognised as an innovation hub and will be one of the UK’s leading high-growth, knowledge-based regions which embraces creativity and innovation at all levels of society’ (page 5).

Measures identified to achieve this include:

In November 2017, the UK Government published the Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain Fit for the Future. This White Paper includes aims to improve living standards and economic growth by increasing productivity and driving growth across the UK. It focuses on the five themes of ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment, and places, and its scope impacts on higher education; for example, it aims to tackle skills shortages in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Also in 2017, the Department for the Economy (DfE) in Northern Ireland published its draft industrial strategy, Economy 2030, for public consultation. The strategy outlines the DfE’s plans for building a globally competitive economy based around five pillars of growth: accelerating innovation and research; education, skills and employability; driving inclusive, sustainable growth; succeeding in global markets; and building the best economic infrastructure. It highlights in particular the need to strengthen links between the higher education research base and local businesses.

Collaboration with business

There have also been a number of inquiries and reports addressing business and university interaction in recent years. These have found that differences across industry sectors and across higher education institutions (HEIs) mean that there is no single model of effective collaboration. Notable reports include the following.

  • A Review of Business-University Collaboration (the Wilson review, 2012), which called for universities to be at the heart of the economy, to promote growth in the UK and to improve the employability of graduates by, for example, increasing opportunities for students to acquire relevant work experience. The UK Government’s response set out initiatives to promote employability skills, research and innovation, work placements and internships, and university-business collaboration at the local level.
  • Forging Futures: Building Higher Level Skills through University and Employer Collaboration (2014), which explored innovative collaborations between universities and employers to create alternative pathways and opportunities for the development of relevant higher level skills. It was published by Universities UK and the (then) UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES).

The Higher Education Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI) survey examines annually how universities collaborate with commerce, community bodies and the public sector in all four nations of the UK. The National Centre for Universities and Business also publishes an annual ‘State of the Relationship’ report that provides examples of collaboration between universities, business and policy makers. The 2019 edition contains examples of practice in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Higher Education Innovation Fund (NI HEIF) aims to encourage the higher education sector to increase its capability to respond to the needs of business (including companies of all sizes) and the wider community. The long-term aim of this funding is to promote innovation, raise productivity and achieve economic growth.

In addition, a number of tools have been launched to support universities in collaborating with industry and commercialising research.

  • The Lambert Toolkit, launched in 2016, facilitates negotiations between potential partners and includes examples of best practice to support innovation.
  • Placer, launched in 2017, connects students seeking work experience with employers offering such opportunities.
  • konfer, also launched in 2017, promotes university-business collaboration by providing businesses with research, researchers and services in UK universities, and universities with potential project partners.
  • The Connected programme is a knowledge transfer project delivered between Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University and Northern Ireland’s six further education colleges. It provides a ‘one-stop-shop’ for companies wishing to access research and technical expertise within the local research base; the pilot programme ran from 2007–2010.

Apprenticeships

The development of higher level apprenticeships (at Level 4Level 5 and Level 6 of the Regulated Qualifications Framework, RQF), aims to widen access to the professions, and develop the higher level technical skills needed to improve productivity and support businesses to compete internationally.

Degree apprenticeships (Level 6) involve employers, universities and relevant professional bodies co-designing apprenticeships which meet full occupational competency and include a bachelor’s degree.

The Government services website, NI Direct, provides information for students about the range of higher level apprenticeships on offer.

Careers advice

All higher education institutions (HEIs) in Northern Ireland provide a careers service for students. Advisers usually take a student through the careers choices that they can follow with their degree and the direction they can take. They discuss career opportunities such as graduate placements, further study opportunities, careers fairs and job opportunities abroad. Students can still contact the service after graduation and may be referred to a university closer to where they then live. University careers services may also offer free CV workshops, internet access, coaching on interview techniques and support with job application forms. Careers fairs provide graduates with information and give them an opportunity to meet potential employers.

Careers services can receive support by subscribing to the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU), an independent research charity that works as an agency of the higher education representative bodies Universities UK and GuildHE. The HECSU also conducts and commissions research on student and graduate career development and employment.

The UK Quality Code for Higher Education advice and guidance document on enabling student achievement addresses the ways in which higher education providers should enable students to develop and achieve their academic, personal and professional potential. Student achievements other than academic achievements may be recorded using the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), described under the subheading ‘Certification’ below.

Student assessment

Assessment procedures are decided by the individual institution. They typically involve a variety of modes of assessment, which may include examinations, essays, multiple-choice tests, reflective journals, peer assessment, portfolios, and assessment of performance and creative work.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) provides guidance on good practice in the UK in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. The advice and guidance document on assessment includes information about the expectations and practices higher education institutions (HEIs) are required to work towards with regard to all forms of assessment used in the context of taught provision.

The QAA publication Explaining Staff Teaching Qualifications (2013) also provides an indicative list of assessment methods (Appendix 4):

  • written examination – a question or set of questions relating to a particular area of study
  • written assignment, including essay – an exercise completed in writing in the student’s own time
  • report – a description, summary or other account of an experience or activity
  • dissertation – an extended piece of written work, usually for purposes of summative assessment
  • portfolio – a compilation of coursework produced in response to specific assessment briefs
  • project outputs – the products of project work, often of a practical nature (excluding report / dissertation)
  • oral assessment / presentation – a conversation or oral presentation on a given topic
  • practical skills assessment – assessment of a student’s practical skills or competence
  • group critique – a method of receiving feedback from both tutors and peers
  • set exercises – questions or tasks designed to assess the application of knowledge or of analytical, problem-solving or evaluative skills.

External examining provides one of the principal means of maintaining nationally comparable standards within autonomous higher education institutions. The assessment procedures include the appointment of one or more external examiners for each subject. Their role is to give an additional opinion on the performance of candidates for degrees. This aims to ensure comparability of standards between universities, and that the examination system and the award of degree classifications is fairly operated. External examiners are usually senior members of the teaching staff of a similar department in another university. The QAA provides guidance in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

Certification

Subject to the status of their degree awarding powers (DAP), institutions are responsible for their own awards, the conditions on which they are awarded, and qualification titles. Guidance is provided by the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), developed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA).

The FHEQ includes qualification descriptors that set out the generic outcomes and attributes expected for the award of bachelor’s degrees.

Qualification titles for bachelor’s degrees include:  

  • Bachelor of Arts, abbreviated to BA   
  • Bachelor of Science, abbreviated to BSc   
  • Bachelor of Education, abbreviated to BEd. 

Institutions traditionally use the same system of classifying (i.e. grading) student attainment in programmes leading to a bachelor’s degree with honours. The honours degree classification system has four points on the scale: first class; second class, which is subdivided into upper second (2:1) and lower second (2:2); and third class. In addition, institutions may award a ‘pass’ degree, which does not carry honours, or a fail. 

Bachelor’s degrees awarded with honours may be designated BA (Hons), BSc (Hons), etc.

Higher Education Achievement Reports

A Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) is an electronic document providing a comprehensive record of the whole of a student’s achievement during his/her time in higher education, as well as an overall summative judgement (e.g. the honours degree classification, grade point average, or other), verified by the institution. The HEAR was launched in 2008, following a recommendation in the 2007 report Beyond the Honours Degree Classification (the Burgess Group Final Report).

The HEAR builds upon the European Diploma Supplement – a document accompanying a higher education diploma, and providing a standardised description of the nature, level, context, content and status of the studies completed by the holder.

HEAR’s launch in 2008 involved 18 institutions; as of 2019, 90 universities and colleges are implementing or planning to implement the HEAR. For further information, see the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) website.

Second Cycle Programmes

Second cycle programmes involve learning at a higher, more challenging level than for a first cycle (undergraduate) programme. Second cycle qualifications at Level 7 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) include master’s degrees (such as MSc and MA) and postgraduate diplomas and certificates. The majority are taught programmes, although there are also research master’s degrees. Much of this article relates to master’s degrees, though there is also information on short programmes (graduate certificates and diplomas).

The UK funding bodies work with government and the UK research councils to develop a coordinated approach to policy, funding and participation issues in postgraduate education. From April 2018, a new body established under the provisions of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 in England, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), brings together the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and a new organisation, Research England, which will work closely with partner organisations in the devolved administrations’ research councils.

Branches of study

Master’s degrees

Master’s degrees are end-of-cycle qualifications at Level 7 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ). They are awarded after completion of taught courses or programmes of research, or a combination of both. The learning outcomes of most master’s degree courses are achieved on the basis of study equivalent to at least one full-time calendar year.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) which hold degree awarding powers (DAP) are responsible for the design of their own programmes, and the number of different courses offered is high.  

The power to award research degrees is granted separately from powers to award first degrees. 

In designing master’s degree programmes, HEIs refer to a range of statements and descriptors that form part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, maintained by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). These include:

  • The qualification descriptor for a higher education qualification at Level 7 on the FHEQ: master’s degree. This describes the threshold academic standard for the qualification in terms of the levels of knowledge and understanding, and the types of abilities, that holders of this qualification are expected to have.
  • subject benchmark statement, describing what gives a discipline its coherence and identity, and defining what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the abilities and skills needed to develop understanding or competence in the subject. Subject benchmark statements exist for a range of master’s degrees where there is significant taught provision in a subject. Some combine or refer to professional standards required by external professional or regulatory bodies in the relevant discipline.

The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) is a framework based on the outcomes represented by the main qualification titles. It is not an integrated credit and qualifications framework, nor is its use dependent on credit. However, most higher education institutions (HEIs) in Northern Ireland also use credit-based systems alongside the FHEQ, such as the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). Master’s degree courses typically require the achievement of 180 credits.

Guidance on the use of credit in the design of programmes is provided by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education; see the advice and guidance document on course design and development.

First degrees in medicine and dentistry comprise an integrated programme of study and professional practice spanning several levels of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ). While the final outcomes of the qualifications themselves typically meet the expectations of the descriptor for a higher education qualification at Level 7 of the FHEQ, i.e. master’s level, these qualifications often retain titles including ‘Bachelor’, for historical reasons. Examples include the titles Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (for which various abbreviations are used, such as MBBS or MBChB), or Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS).

There are also integrated master’s degrees in science, engineering, pharmacy and mathematics. These comprise a programme of study spanning several FHEQ levels, where the outcomes are normally achieved through study equivalent to four full-time academic years. In such programmes, the final outcomes again meet the expectations of the qualification descriptor for Level 7 of the FHEQ in full, but the earlier stages of the programme involve study at a level that typically meets the expectations of the qualification descriptor for Level 6.

Postgraduate certificates and diplomas

Second cycle programmes also include short courses and professional ‘conversion’ courses, usually taken by those who are already graduates in another discipline. They lead, for example, to graduate certificates or graduate diplomas at Level 6 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), such as the Graduate Diploma in Accounting and the Graduate Diploma in Legal Studies.

Short second cycle programmes can also include study at Level 7 of the FHEQ, i.e. at master’s level. For example, the PGCE, awarded for initial teacher training programmes, may have the full title of either the Professional Graduate Certificate in Education (at Level 6 of the FHEQ) or the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (at Level 7). Students taking the second of these two routes gain credits at master’s level that may be used towards a master’s degree.

Admission requirements

Although individual institutions set their own admission requirements for second cycle programmes, entry to many master’s degree courses requires an upper second class bachelor’s degree (2:1). Entry to postgraduate (second cycle) certificate and diploma courses, on the other hand, does not normally require a specific class of first degree. Admission to some courses is subject to students having a certain amount of related work experience.

Applications for admission are generally made direct to the institution at which the applicant wishes to study. There are also certain qualifications for which application must be made via schemes operated by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), such as postgraduate teacher training and master’s courses in social work and nursing.

Mature students form a large proportion of entrants to postgraduate education, especially to part-time postgraduate study. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) indicates that, across the UK, around two-thirds of part-time postgraduate students are aged 30 or over, while around a fifth of full-time postgraduate students are over this age. Eligibility for postgraduate student loans extends to mature students who are aged under 60 on starting their course.

Information for candidates considering taking a master’s degree is available from a number of websites for students to visit, such as Steps to Postgraduate Study

Curriculum

There is no national curriculum for second cycle higher education, and higher education providers decide what second cycle programmes to offer.

Institutions with degree awarding powers (DAP) have the autonomy to design and develop their own programmes of study. These may be taught degree awarding powers or research degree awarding powers. In designing their programmes, institutions do, however, refer to Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) UK Quality Code for Higher Education, which includes advice and guidance on the expectations and practices providers must adhere to with regard to course design and development.

Institutions with DAP are also expected to comply with the specifications for threshold academic standards set out in the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) for programmes at the relevant level of the framework.

The QAA also provides subject benchmark statements, which explain the level of achievement expected at master’s level, and which are intended to assist those involved in programme design, delivery and review. 

Employability

Research students are encouraged to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning during and after their programme of study, and to recognise the value of developing transferable skills.

In its productivity plan, Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation, published in July 2015, the UK Government stated its intention to support universities in collaborating with industry and commercialising research.  

Student assessment

Assessment procedures are decided by the individual institution and typically involve a range of methods.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) provides guidance on the assessment of taught modules and programmes in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

Assessment for research qualifications is different from that for taught awards, and assessment for a master’s degree by research will usually include some kind of oral examination. Guidelines on the assessment of research students can be found in the Quality Code advice and guidance document on research degrees.

External examining provides one of the principal means of maintaining nationally comparable standards within autonomous higher education institutions (HEIs). Assessment procedures include the appointment of one or more external examiners for each subject. Their role is to give an additional opinion on the performance of candidates for degrees and consequently ensure comparability of standards between universities. External examiners are usually senior members of the teaching staff of a similar department in another university.

Certification

Subject to the status of their degree awarding powers (DAP), institutions are responsible for their own awards, the conditions on which they are awarded, and qualification titles.

Guidance is provided by the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), developed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). Qualification descriptors set out the generic outcomes and attributes expected for the award of each type of qualification. They describe the threshold academic standard for those qualification types in terms of the levels of knowledge and understanding, and the types of abilities, that holders of the relevant qualification are expected to have. On successful completion of a master’s degree, the grades awarded are generally distinction, merit and pass.

Master of Arts (MA) courses are normally in arts, social sciences, business or humanities subjects. A Master of Science (MSc) is awarded for science and social science courses. Other taught master’s courses include the Master of Business Administration (MBA) and the Master of Education (MEd). There are also Master of Research (MRes) courses in science and social science subjects, which combine broad training in research methods with a research project. Longer master’s courses that typically involve a more substantial element of research or equivalent enquiry often lead to the degree of ‘Master of Philosophy’ (MPhil).

Third Cycle (PhD) Programmes

Doctoral degrees are at Level 8 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ).

The UK funding bodies work with government and the UK research councils to develop a coordinated approach to policy, funding and participation issues in postgraduate education. Since April 2018, a new body established under the provisions of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 in England, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), has brought together the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and a new organisation, Research England. UKRI works closely with partner organisations in the devolved administrations’ research councils.

Organisation of doctoral studies

The degree of Doctor of Philosophy, abbreviated to PhD (or DPhil in some universities), is awarded for the creation and interpretation of new knowledge, or application of existing knowledge in a new way, at the forefront of an academic discipline (e.g. in arts, social sciences, business, humanities or science subjects). This is usually through original research. 

All doctoral degrees are expected to meet the generic statement of outcomes set out in the qualification descriptor for doctoral degrees in the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ). The qualification descriptor sets out broad expected outcomes for a doctoral degree in terms of what graduates should be able to demonstrate and the wider abilities that they would be expected to have developed.

Doctoral programmes generally take three to four years full-time, or five to seven years part-time, to complete. They are not typically credit-rated.

The majority of doctoral degrees are taken at universities. However, there are some opportunities for studying in government laboratories, hospital laboratories and research institutions – in partnership with a university.

Alternative routes to PhD

The ‘New Route PhD’ or integrated PhD involves studying a one-year research master’s degree followed by a three-year PhD. It combines research with a structured programme of training in research methods and transferable professional skills.

The professional doctorate includes a significant taught component and a smaller research project. It is often taken on a part-time basis and can last anywhere between two and eight years. This type of doctorate is primarily aimed at professionals in vocational sectors such as healthcare, teaching and education, and engineering and manufacturing. Their research is expected to contribute to theory as well as professional practice.

Academics with a substantial body of experience, but no PhD, may apply for a ‘PhD by publication’. This involves submitting previously published work (e.g. books, book chapters, and journal articles, that together form a coherent body of work and show evidence of an original contribution to a particular field of study), together with a supporting statement.

PhDs by distance learning are also available, and may be taken full- or part-time.

The graduate careers website Prospects provides further information on these routes.

Admission requirements

Higher education institutions set their own admission requirements. Guidelines on the selection, admission and induction of students are available from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) UK Quality Code for Higher Education in the advice and guidance document on research degrees.

For doctoral research, applicants would normally be expected to have at least one of:  

  • an undergraduate degree with honours (usually class 2:1 or above) in a relevant subject  
  • a relevant master’s qualification, or equivalent evidence of prior professional practice or learning that meets the higher education provider’s criteria and guidelines for the accreditation of prior learning (APL); this may include, for example, the required amount of prior publications or other output specified for applicants for the award of PhD by publication.

Information for candidates considering applying for a third cycle programme is available from the Vitae website. Vitae is a national organisation that supports the professional development of researchers.

Status of doctoral students/candidates

Doctoral students may have the status of students, or may hold an employment contract with their higher education institution (HEI). Traditional supervision-based (student) doctorates are the more widespread.

Supervision arrangements

Supervision arrangements are determined by the individual higher education institution (HEI). Guidelines are provided by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) in the advice and guidance document on research degrees, which forms part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

Employability

Research students are encouraged to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning during and after their programme of study, and to recognise the value of developing transferable skills. The advice and guidance document on research degrees, which is part of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) UK Quality Code for Higher Education, provides guidance on the support that should be offered to research postgraduate students to develop employability skills. 

In its productivity plan, Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation, published in July 2015, the UK Government stated its intention to support universities in collaborating with industry and commercialising research.  

Assessment

Assessment procedures for research qualifications are different from those for taught awards. Doctoral candidates are examined on the basis of an appropriate body of work and an oral examination (viva voce), in which they defend their thesis to a panel of academics who are experts in the field.

External examining provides one of the principal means of maintaining nationally comparable standards within autonomous higher education institutions (HEIs). The assessment procedures include the appointment of one or more external examiners for each subject. Their role is to give an additional opinion on the performance of candidates for degrees. This aims to ensure comparability of standards between universities, and that the examination system and the award of degree classifications are fairly operated. External examiners are usually senior members of the teaching staff of a similar department in another university.

The advice and guidance document on research degrees provided by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) as part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education provides guidance on assessment and external examining.

Certification

Subject to the status of their degree awarding powers (DAP), institutions are responsible for their own awards, the conditions on which they are awarded, and qualification titles. 

Guidance is provided by the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), including qualification descriptors which set out the generic outcomes and attributes expected for the award of doctoral degrees (page 30).

Qualification titles for doctoral degrees include:  

  • Doctor of Philosophy, abbreviated to PhD or DPhil   
  • Doctor of Education, abbreviated to EdD   
  • Doctor of Clinical Psychology, abbreviated to DClinPsy   
  • Doctor of Engineering, abbreviated to EngD or DEng   
  • Doctor of Business Administration, abbreviated to DBA. 

Honorary doctorates are not academic qualifications. 

Organisational variation

Open and distance learning is also available. The Open University, for example, which specialises in ‘supported open learning’, offers doctoral programmes. PhD qualifications taken through the Open University involve a four-year period of full-time study, or a maximum of six years part-time.

Higher doctorates may be awarded in recognition of a substantial body of original research undertaken over the course of many years. Typically, a portfolio of work which has been previously published in a peer-refereed context is submitted for assessment. Most higher education awarding bodies restrict candidacy to graduates or academic staff of several years’ standing.

Mobility in Higher Education

Strategies and actions may be cross-sectoral, so this section should be read in conjunction with the ‘Introduction: Mobility and Internationalisation’.

Student mobility 

Study USA is a scholarship programme allowing Northern Ireland students to study business and management and / or a subject related to science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) at an American college or university for one academic year. The programme is funded by the Department for the Economy (DfE) and delivered by the British Council.

Each year, between 50 and 60 study placements are available via the programme, which has been running since 1994. Students must be studying full-time at a Northern Ireland college or university, and be EU nationals, to be eligible. The scholarship funding package for 2020/21 includes accommodation, meals, a textbook allowance and one return flight to the US. There is a student participant fee of £1500 (€1749.99*), although this is waived if the student is in receipt of a maintenance grant. Tuition fees are waived by participating US colleges and universities.

*Exchange rate used: €1 = £0.86 ECB, 26 November 2019.

United Kingdom – Scotland

Higher Education

As laid out in the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Acts 1992 and 2005, higher education institutions (HEIs) provide the following types of courses at a higher level in preparation for a qualification from a professional body:

  • Sub-degree courses
  • First degree courses
  • Courses for the education and training of teachers
  • Courses of post-graduate studies at Masters and Doctorate levels
  • Courses  HEIs are also expected to carry out research

Policy Objectives

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning provides the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) with letters of guidance, setting out the Scottish Government’s priorities for investment in colleges and HEIs. The SFC is a non-departmental public body of the Scottish Government.

The SFC establishes an outcome agreement with each of the 19 HEIs. These agreements set out what HEIs plan to deliver in return for their funding from the SFC. They also allow the SFC and the sector to quantify improvements across the areas identified in the Cabinet Secretary’s letter of guidance, as well as other specific outcomes set out in offers and conditions of grant.

Scottish Government priorities for the academic year 2017-18 were expressed in the letter of guidance issued on 30th March 2017 by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. The Scottish Government indicated that it expects the SFC to ensure that improved outcomes are delivered by HEIs across the following areas:

  • Sustainable economic growth through education of the workforce in targeted areas
  • Prioritisation of provision in education to address industry skills gaps – including in STEM (science, technology, and mathematics) subjects, and digital skills
  • Widening access to all areas of education, implementing the recommendations of the Commission on Widening Access, and improving participation in STEM areas amongst female students
  • To ensure the highest standards of governance and financial accountability amongst HEIs
  • Bolster connectedness of HEIs to wider society and institutions
  • Internationally competitive and impactful research

In 2011 the Scottish Government published Putting Learners at the Centre: Delivering our Ambitions for Post-16 Education. It sets out proposals for wide-ranging reform of the full range of Government-funded post-16 education in Scotland – higher education, further education and skills.

The strategy stated that the Scottish Government is strongly committed to widening participation in both further and higher education. It recognised the work done by SFC through Learning for All, the SFC’s strategy for widening participation. Published in 2005, Learning for All proposed measures to monitor progress in widening access. Annual update reports on these measures of success have been published by SFC, these include reporting against measures requested by the Scottish Government.

The Organisation of Higher Education in the UK

Higher education in all four parts of the United Kingdom shares a number of characteristics and structural features. In the United Kingdom, HEIs are autonomous self-governing bodies which offer degrees by virtue of their own degree awarding powers or the degree awarding powers of another institution. These degree awarding powers are recognised by the UK authorities (UK and Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies).

Institutions are responsible for appointing and employing their own staff. Grants for specific research projects and programmes are administered on a UK-wide basis through the seven UK research councils.

Within the context of institutional autonomy, some common approaches and frameworks are used. There is no system for the accreditation of institutions but the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) makes judgments on UK institutions’ capability to manage their own quality and standards. QAA publishes the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, which provides the definitive reference point for providers. However, QAA (Scotland) has delegated responsibilities from the QAA Board for managing QAA work in Scotland and has developed a distinctive approach.

Opportunities for international engagement also encourage a coordinated response. Reflecting these commonalities and shared missions, a number of sector-led bodies operate on behalf of HEIs across the UK. These bodies include:

  • Universities UK (UUK) (whose members are the executive heads of UK institutions)
  • UCAS (which provides application services)
  • The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA)
  • The Higher Education Academy (HEA)
  • The Committee of University Chairs (CUC)

Scotland has distinct traditions of higher education. For example:

  • Mmany students move into higher education at the age of 17 (rather than 18 in other parts of the United Kingdom)
  • The Scottish higher education system favours a four-year undergraduate degree programme, which offers students enhanced flexibility and academic breadth
  • The ancient universities of Scotland issue a Master of Arts as the first degree in humanities

Moreover, since the late 1990s the devolved administrations of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have had responsibility for education, and policies in some areas have diverged. The most notable recent divergence is around tuition fees and student support, the funding of institutions and the related governance arrangements. For example, in Scotland, there are no direct course fees for first time undergraduate students from a country within the European Union.

First degree students from Scotland or the rest of the EU studying in Scotland are entitled to have their tuition fees paid by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS). Assessment of research continues to be undertaken on a UK-wide basis although there are differences in the way the four UK funding councils use the results to allocate funding for research infrastructure.

Legislation

The relevant legislation relates to both higher and further education. The Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992 made fundamental changes in the organisation of post-school education in Scotland.

Colleges (previously Further Education Colleges), which had previously been the responsibility of the education authorities, became “incorporated” (i.e. self-governing) under the general supervision of the then Scottish Office Education Department (and later that of the Scottish Government Lifelong Learning Directorate). These colleges contribute to higher education as well as to non-advanced further education.

The 1992 Act also created a separate Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC). This action removed the dividing line which existed between the former Central Institutions and the HEIs in respect of their funding mechanisms and created a distinctly Scottish body able to take major decisions affecting the future of higher education in Scotland.

From 1 July 1999, under powers provided in the 1992 Act, a Scottish Further Education Funding Council (SFEFC) came into operation. This replaced the former further education Funding Unit of the then Scottish Office Education and Industry Department (later the Scottish Government Lifelong Learning Directorate).

The Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005 dissolved SFEFC and SHEFC and created a new Scottish Funding Council (SFC). The 2005 Act repealed the sections of the 1992 Act, which referred to the old Councils.

Merging the two Funding Councils allowed a more strategic overview of both the further education and higher education sectors, increasing transparency and allowing more coherent decision-making. SFC is responsible for funding Scotland’s colleges and HEIs. The Act also extends the powers of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman to the actions of further education and HEIs.

The Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016 changed the nature of HEI governance, aimed at the promotion of greater accountability in the sector, and to strengthen academic freedoms for staff. The Act specifies that greater proportons of governing boards must be elected, as well as include more current students.

Structure of the Academic Year

The structure of the academic year is not regulated by law. Under The Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992, HEIs are autonomous and can decide for themselves the start and finish of the academic year.

Some follow the traditional academic calendar and generally start in September or October and finish in May or June. Holidays during the year are typically at Christmas and Easter (for approximately a month each) and examinations would be at the end of the final term. Institutions are also autonomous regarding the time devoted to teaching activities, holidays and examination periods.

Other HEIs have moved to a semester system which splits the year into separate teaching blocks with shorter holidays and examination periods twice yearly. Under this system students can start the year at different times e.g. in September or in January. Certain dates, such as 25-26 December and 1-2 January will be regarded as public holidays by all institutions.

Other post-school institutions offering further and higher education have an academic year closer in length and division to the school year.

For postgraduate (second and third cycle) students, the organisation of time varies. Where a taught master’s programme has a duration of one year, this normally means a full calendar year.

Teaching normally takes place between 9.00 a.m. and 6.00 p.m., from Monday to Friday, but may take place at other times. Part-time courses may be offered during the day or in the evening.

Legislative references

Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992 (Act of Parliament) : 1992, c.37.

Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005 (Act of the Scottish Parliament) : 2005, asp6.

Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016 (Act of Scottish Parliament) : 2016, asp15.

Bachelor

Branches of Study

The normal pattern for students studying for first degrees in the majority of subject areas is to take a four-year (full time study) bachelor’s degree with honours involving specialization – often known as Honours degrees.

The Honours degree is learners’ preferred type of course and is normally required for entrance to later post-graduate study. However, it is also possible to attain an Ordinary (i.e. General) degree in three years. In some faculties, for example in medicine and veterinary medicine, courses are longer.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) in Scotland use a credit-based system in the design and management of curricula and the standards of qualifications (the Scottish Credit and Qualifications framework (SCQF)). 

They share a common understanding of credit and usage of 120 credits to denote a volume of learning that a learner will spend, on average, to achieve the specified learning outcomes in an academic year. The Ordinary degree requires at least 360 SCQF Credits (180 ECTS), of which 60 (30 ECTS) must be at SCQF level 9. The Honours degree requires at least 480 SCQF credits (240 ECTS): a minimum of 120 (60 ECTS) must be at SCQF levels 9 and 10, including at least 90 (45 ECTS) at level 10.

Primary qualifications in medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine typically include study equivalent to at least five full-time academic years, of which study equivalent to at least one full-time academic year is at SCQF level 11. Thus study at bachelor’s level is integrated with study at master’s level and the programmes are classified as second cycle qualifications, although they are described here.

Degree awarding institutions are responsible for the design of their own programmes and awards. The number of different courses offered is very high. Typically, Honours degree programmes in Scotland allow students to study a range of subjects in the first two years – sometimes in areas of study that are unrelated to their degree title in the first year – before choosing a subject (or subjects) to focus on in the final two years.

There is also normally choice within the final years of each programme. Typically, a relatively fixed menu of modules covers the core knowledge of the subject, and is combined with a menu of options in the more specialised aspects of the subject area. The time spent in lectures, tutorials and practical work, in laboratories or in the field, varies from year to year within courses, from course to course within an institution and from institution to institution. Courses are typically organized within broad faculty or “school” groupings within each institution, such as Arts, Sciences, Law, Medicine, Social Sciences, etc.

A very wide range of subjects is offered across Scottish HEIs. Course subjects are too plentiful to list here – please visit the websites of individual HEIs for more detail. Some of these subjects can be studied only in a small number of institutions, at least at undergraduate level. For example:

  • Linguistics is available only at the University of Edinburgh
  • Slavonic Studies only at the University of Glasgow
  • Pharmacy and Librarianship are offered only by the Robert Gordon University and Strathclyde University
  • Veterinary Medicine only by the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow

On the other hand, 16 of the HEIs have Business and Management Studies.

HEIs also vary in the number of subjects they offer. The Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, for example, teach a very wide offering. At the other end of the scale some institutions, such as Edinburgh College of Art, Glasgow School of Art and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, offer a much smaller number of specialised subjects. Students can undertake post-graduate study and research leading to higher degrees in all the institutions.

Admission Requirements

The usual entry requirement for higher education courses is a group of awards at grades A-C in the National Qualifications Higher or Advanced Higher level examinations set by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), or qualifications deemed by a HEI to be equivalent to these.

For many higher education courses the candidate needs to hold awards at specified levels. Awards in the English General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level (or the equivalent) are also accepted. For some higher education courses – particularly Higher National Certificate (HNC) and Higher National Diploma (HND) – a group of appropriate National Certificate (NC) awards (often achieved in college courses) may be acceptable.

There is a points scoring system establishing agreed comparability between different types of qualification across the whole of the UK – the UCAS tariff. HEIs are not obliged to express their entry requirements in terms of tariff points. Those that do may additionally require some or all of the qualifications for entry to be in specific subjects and at specific grades. An applicant who meets the published minimum admission requirements for a particular programme may be offered a place, but this is not guaranteed.

Entry is competitive, with wide variations between institutions and programmes in terms of the competition for places. For some highly oversubscribed programmes, such as medicine, dentistry and law, applicants may be required to take an additional admissions test (e.g. the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) or the Law National Admissions Test (LNAT)).

Most institutions do not routinely interview applicants for most programmes. However, applicants for entry to professional and vocational programmes such as initial teaching training, medicine, veterinary medicine and dentistry are usually required to attend a selection interview.

Information on programmes and entry requirements is available from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

Progression from Higher National Qualifications

Many students move to a university or HEI to take a degree after successfully completing an Higher National qualification at a college. Articulation arrangements exist between some courses at college and university to allow learners to enter university with advanced standing after successful completion of Higher National qualifications.

Mature Students

HEIs welcome applications from mature students (defined as applicants over the age of 21) as well as from school leavers. A range of specially designed courses prepare adults both for higher education in general and for particular courses. These “access” courses include a range of SQA units or courses, successful completion of which may lead to an SQA award. Many “access” courses carry a guarantee of a place in higher education on successful completion. (Note: the word “access” as used in this context of facilitating entry to higher education does not refer to the level of National Qualifications called Access.)

Students from outside Scotland

Applications from outside Scotland to pursue a higher education course are considered individually to ascertain the acceptability of entry qualifications. There are many well-established pathways and partnerships involving Scottish and international institutions, including joint degrees, or periods of study abroad (e.g. via Erasmus funding).

Processing of Applications

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) is the single organisation responsible for processing applications to most full-time undergraduate (first cycle) programmes in the UK. It distributes them to the individual institutions and enables candidates to apply to several institutions on one form.

UCAS is funded by participating HEIs and from the fees paid by each applicant. For some courses, for example in art and design and in social work, there are other arrangements. The Conservatoires Admissions Service UK (CUKAS) processes applications to enter the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD).

Curriculum

HEIs are entirely responsible for developing and maintaining/updating their own curricula for almost all courses. This responsibility is delegated within institutions to faculties/schools/departments, according to the particular structure of each institution.

In the case of a few courses leading to a professional qualification linked to recognition by a Professional, Statutory or Regulatory Body (PSRB) – e.g. degrees in medicine, engineering, nursing, social work and education – curricular decisions are made in conjunction with the relevant regulatory body.

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) provides subject benchmark statements explaining the core competencies at honours degree level in a range of disciplines, which are intended to assist those involved in programme design, delivery and review. The QAA also provides guidance on programme design and approval for HEIs in Chapter B1 of its Quality Code for Higher

Teaching Methods

HEIs are free to decide how their programmes will be taught. Teaching methods are decided by the individual teacher, department, faculty or institution, or a combination of these. Lectures, seminars, tutorial groups, project work and, in appropriate subjects, laboratory work and field work are the main teaching methods.

In some institutions and in some subjects there is significant use of computers in learning. There has also been extensive development of other forms of provision such as distance learning (including e-learning), open learning and flexible learning.

The Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005 introduced a new duty for the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to enhance, as well as assess, the quality of education which it is funding. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Scotland works alongside SFC in fulfilling this role.

Progression of Students

Each institution has its own regulations governing student progression within a programme. The Quality Assurance Agency provides guidance in its UK Quality Code for Higher Education, Chapter B6: Assessment of students and accreditation of prior learning. The Code recommends that each institution should publicise and implement clear rules and regulations for progressing from one stage of a programme to another and for qualifying for an award.

Traditionally, promotion from year to year depends on passing examinations and, in some cases (for example for entry to Honours courses), on attaining sufficiently high grades. Often students must obtain a number of examination passes before they can progress to the next year. The exact number depends on the course and the institution. Usually two opportunities are given to sit the examinations, except in the case of final Honours examinations which may be taken only once.

Employability

HEIs have relationships with industry, commerce and the professions on several different levels. The directors of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) meet regularly with the Scottish Government to co-ordinate planning and share information over a range of learning and training issues. SFC is also actively engaged with the Skills Committee, a joint committee of SFC and of Skills Development Scotland, which has a direct influence on national policy and funding – details on the SFC website.

HEIs provide courses, for example in management, tailored to the needs of particular types of business. They have contacts with firms to help students to obtain placements when that is a requirement of their course. They also facilitate students’ access to information about careers. University careers services have close contacts with the major employers of graduates. HEI staff carry out work for firms as consultants or on secondments. For their part, some firms commission research from HEIs and send their staff to them for training. These kinds of interactions between industry and HEIs also create career opportunities for students.

Student Assessment

Assessment procedures are decided by the individual institution. They typically involve a range of methods. QAA provides guidance on good practice in its Quality Code for Higher Education, Chapter B6.

Students’ work is normally evaluated by a combination of coursework and written examinations, traditionally at the end of each academic year. Some institutions have modularised courses, in which students gradually build credit through coursework assessment of each module to achieve the course qualification, without an additional examination. In courses where it is appropriate there are also practical examinations, for example in the sciences or for oral proficiency in languages. Normally the department in which the student is studying makes the judgements about standards of attainment.

External examining provides one of the principal means for maintaining nationally comparable standards within autonomous HEIs. The assessment procedures include the appointment of one or more external examiners for each subject. Their role is to give an additional opinion on the performance of candidates for degrees and thus ensure compatibility of standards between universities, and that the examination system and the award of degree classifications is fairly operated.

The external examiner(s) sample some of the work (course work as well as examination papers) and validates the assessment. Examiners are usually senior members of the teaching staff of a similar department in another university. QAA provides guidance in its Quality Code for Higher Education. Chapter B7 covers arrangements for External Examining.

Certification

Subject to the status of their degree awarding powers institutions are responsible for their own awards, the conditions on which they are awarded and qualification titles. The holder of a degree is described as a “graduate”. Degrees awarded in Scotland are recognised throughout the United Kingdom.

Guidance is provided by the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (2014), developed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). This framework forms part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

The Framework includes qualification descriptors that set out the generic outcomes and attributes expected for the award of bachelor’s degrees. Qualification titles for bachelor’s degrees include:

  • Bachelor of Arts, abbreviated to BA
  • Bachelor of Science, abbreviated to BSc
  • Bachelor of Education, abbreviated to BEd

Some HEIs distinguish between “Ordinary” degrees (3 years of study) and Honours degrees (4 years of study, with specialisation in years 3 and 4). Institutions traditionally use the same system of classifying (i.e. grading) student attainment in programmes leading to an Honours degree.

The classification system has four points on the honours degree scale: first class; second class (subdivided into upper second 2:1 and lower second 2:2); and third class. In addition, institutions may award a ‘pass’ degree which does not carry honours, or a fail.

Bachelor’s degrees awarded with honours may be designated thus: BA (Hons), BSc (Hons) etc.

Although the first degree in most faculties in Scottish universities is a Bachelor’s degree, the first degree in Arts in the four “ancient” universities and Dundee University is a Master of Arts (MA). Heriot-Watt University also offers some “first degree” MAs, but at Honours level only. A Master’s degree in all other faculties and in the other universities is a second cycle, post-graduate qualification.

Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework

The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) shows the relationships among all mainstream Scottish qualifications in schools, further education, employment and higher education. The Framework is owned by the SCQF Partnership, which includes education providers, quality agencies and the Scottish Government, and is a major policy tool for promoting flexible lifelong learning. It is described under National Qualifications Framework. More detail on SCQF and the work of the Partnership is available on the SCQF website.

Legislative references

Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005 Act of the Scottish Parliament) : 2005, asp6.

Second Cycle Programmes

Branches of Study

Second cycle qualifications at Level 11 of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) include master’s degrees (such as MSc and MA) and postgraduate certificates (PGCert) and diplomas (PGDip). These are generally taught programmes, although they may have a research element. The focus of this article is master’s degrees, although postgraduate certificate/diplomas are covered briefly.

Masters

Degree awarding institutions are responsible for the design of their own programmes and awards and the number of different programmes offered is high. Programmes are available across higher education institutions (HEIs) in a range of subjects/study areas comparable to those available at first degree level.

Masters qualifications typically have more generic style titles than specific subject titles – for example, Master of Science (MSc) is normally awarded for science and social science courses, and Master of Arts (MA) for arts, social science or humanities subjects (or a Master of Letters (MLitt) is commonly awarded for arts and humanities subjects in the universities that award “first degree” MAs.

Some programmes have more specific names, such as Master of Education (MEd). There are also Master of Research (MRes) courses in science and social science subjects which combine broad training in research methods with a research project. Longer master’s courses that typically involve a more substantial element of research or equivalent enquiry often lead to the degree of MPhil.

There is no common national approach to the naming of Masters qualifications: universities themselves make the decisions about many awards. However, in the case of qualifications linked to professional bodies e.g. MEng (engineers), MPharm (pharmacy), the Professional, Statutory or Regulatory Body (PSRB) has a major influence over the content of awards.

Masters programmes may be taught or completed through research. Taught programmes typically comprise specialised training in a subject followed by undertaking an independent research project leading to a dissertation. Whilst in research programmes students undertake a research project leading to a thesis, which should make a distinct contribution to knowledge.

The length of a Masters programme is normally 1 year full time or 2 or more years part time. Achievement of the degree requires at least 180 SCQF credits (60 ECTS) of which a minimum of 150 (75 ECTS) must be at SCQF level 11.

Integrated master’s degree programmes exist in science, engineering, pharmacy and mathematics. They typically include study equivalent to at least five full-time academic years in Scotland, of which study equivalent to at least one full-time academic year is at SCQF level 11. Thus study at bachelor’s level is integrated with study at master’s level and the programmes are designed to meet the qualification descriptors in full at SCQF level 10 and 11. A total of 600 SCQF units (300 ECTS) of which a minimum of 120 (60 ECTS) is at SCQF level 11 is required.

Primary qualifications in medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine typically include study equivalent to at least five full-time academic years, of which study equivalent to at least one full-time academic year is at SCQF level 11. Thus study at bachelor’s level is integrated with study at master’s level and the programmes are classified as second cycle qualifications. These qualifications may often retain, for historical reasons, titles of:

  • Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery – MBChB or BM BS
  • Bachelor of Dental Surgery – BDS
  • Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine or Bachelor of Veterinary Science – BVetMed and BVSc respectively

Postgraduate certificates/diplomas

Postgraduate diplomas (PGDip) and certificates (PGCert) are short second cycle programmes at level 11 of the SCQF. The requirement is a minimum of 120 (60 ECTS) of which 90 (45 ECTS) is at SCQF Level 11 for a PGDip, and 60 (30 ECTS) of which a minimum of 40 (20 ECTS) is at SCQF level 11 for a PGCert. Master’s degrees are often distinguished from postgraduate certificates/diplomas by an increased intensity, complexity and density of study – Masters typically include planned intellectual progression with a dissertation component.

Postgraduate certificates/diplomas usually follow bachelors study in a similar subject, offer Masters-level specialism without the dissertation, and are generally vocational in nature.

Many masters programmes are paired with diplomas and/or certificates – students can undertake the same coursework and examinations as masters students, but have the option of not proceeding to the dissertation/thesis stage and being awarded a diploma or certificate.

Some postgraduate diplomas provide a formal professional qualification recognised by a regulatory body. This is the case, for example, with the Post-graduate Diploma in Education (PGDE) (Primary or Secondary), which is the necessary qualification for holders of a degree who wish to register as teachers with the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

Admission Requirements

Individual institutions set their own admission requirements for master’s programmes. Students are normally required to have achieved a good standard in a first cycle degree qualification in a cognate subject area. It is possible to be admitted to some Masters programmes on the basis of relevant professional experience, though this occurs only rarely.

Curriculum

As with first cycle programmes, HEIs are autonomously responsible for developing, maintaining and updating their own Masters programmes. This responsibility is delegated within them to faculties/schools/departments, according to the particular structure of each institution for Masters programmes.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) provides general guidance on programme design for UK HEIs in its Quality Code for Higher Education’. Chapter B11 covers requirements for research degree courses and Chapter B1 covers curriculum and programme arrangements expected for taught degree courses.

The QAA also provides subject benchmark statements explaining what achievement is expected at master’s level, which are intended to assist those involved in programme design, delivery and review.

Teaching Methods

As with Bachelor programmes, HEIs are free to decide how their Masters programmes will be taught. Lectures, seminars, tutorial groups, project work and, in appropriate subjects, laboratory work and field work are the main teaching methods.

In addition, Masters programmes expect students to undertake deep reflection, critical thinking and research, and tasks are designed to encourage these. For the research element of a Masters programme students receive guidance from a specialist tutor/supervisor.

Some Masters programmes are available on-line or through other forms of distance learning.

Progression of Students

Each institution has its own regulations governing student progression within a programme. The QAA provides guidance in its Quality Code for Higher Education.

Students progress through a programme by successfully completing the assignments and assessments it comprises. Some taught Masters programmes have possible exit points at which the student can achieve Postgraduate Certificate or Diploma qualifications. Success at these stages is expected before going on to the research dissertation, which is the final Masters phase.

Employability

As with Bachelor programmes, HEIs have relationships with industry, commerce and the professions on several different levels.

Student Assessment

Assessment procedures are decided by the individual institution. QAA provides guidance on good practice in its Quality Code for Higher Education, Chapter B6.

In taught programmes, students’ work is normally evaluated by a combination of coursework and written examinations, traditionally at the end of each academic year. Some institutions have modularised courses, in which students gradually build credit through coursework assessment of each module to achieve the course qualification, without an additional examination.

Assessment tasks may be used for formative or summative purposes or both. They are not necessarily all written tasks – they might include, for example, presentations to the class. Assessment for taught programmes also includes evaluation of the research dissertation.

In the case of research Masters programmes, only the dissertation is assessed. In both cases, summative assessment tasks and dissertations are evaluated by the university faculty staff responsible for the programme. An external examiner or examiners from another institution moderate(s) the assessment by evaluating a sample of the work.

Certification

As for first cycle qualifications, subject to the status of their degree awarding powers institutions are responsible for their own awards, the conditions on which they are awarded and qualification titles.

Guidance is provided by the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (2014), developed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). This framework forms part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

The Framework includes qualification descriptors that set out the generic outcomes and attributes expected for the award of bachelor’s degrees.

Qualification titles for bachelor’s degrees include:

  • Master of Science, abbreviated to MSc
  • Master of Arts, abbreviated to MA
  • Master of Letters, abbreviated to MLitt
  • Master of Research, abbreviated to MRes
  • Master of Philosophy, abbreviated to MPhil

Third Cycle (PhD) Programmes

Organisation of Doctoral Studies

It is possible to pursue doctoral studies in a very wide range of areas. However, as with Masters degrees, more generic titles are typically used. There is no common national approach to the naming of doctoral qualifications; universities themselves make the decisions.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), the most common qualification, may be awarded for studies in a wide range of humanities, arts, social sciences or scientific studies. A PhD (or DPhil in some universities) is awarded for the creation and interpretation of new knowledge, or application of existing knowledge in a new way, at the forefront of an academic discipline – usually through original research.

A usual prerequisite of doctoral study is that students will have studied either a Masters degree in research methods, or a Masters with a substantial research methods component. This is to ensure doctoral candidates have a good grasp of research methods.

Professional doctorates, which usually have the discipline name in the title awarded (e.g. EdD for Doctor of Education, DClinPsy for Doctor of Clinical Psychology, EngD or DEng for engineering), also have a research component but this is coupled with a substantial taught element. They typically involve work-based as well as university-based study and research.

The length of programmes vary across universities and types of programme. Doctoral programmes generally take three to four years full-time. It is possible to undertake doctoral studies on a part time basis, and this would generally take five to seven years to complete. Some 4-year programmes may, in effect, include a 1-year Masters programme as their first year. In the case of 3-year doctorates, most students have gained a Masters degree before achieving the doctorate and so have been involved in post-graduate study for a longer period.

Taught doctoral degrees require at least 540 SCQF credits (270 ECTS), of which a minimum of 420 (210 ECTS) is at SCQF level 12. Research doctorates do not have an SCQF credit rating.

All doctoral degrees are expected to meet the generic statement of outcomes set out in the qualification descriptor for doctoral degrees in The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (QAA, 2014). The qualification descriptor sets out broad expected outcomes for a doctoral degree in terms of what graduates should be able to demonstrate and the wider abilities that they would be expected to have developed.

Admission Requirements

Universities set their own admission requirements. Guidelines on the selection, admission and induction of students are available from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)’s Quality Code for Higher Education. Chapter B11 covers postgraduate research programmes.

Doctoral students have normally achieved a Masters qualification in a cognate subject prior to embarking on the programme. In some cases the prior requirement may be simply an undergraduate degree with honours (usually class 2:1 or equivalent) in a cognate subject.

Status of Doctoral Students/Candidates

The formal status of those following doctoral programmes is that of students. In some cases employed people may undertake a doctoral programme with the approval of their employer or on a part-time basis.

Supervision Arrangements

Supervision arrangements are determined by the higher education institutions (HEIs) themselves. Guidelines are provided by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) in its Quality Code for Higher Education. The guidelines are based on four principles:

  • Opportunities for access to regular and appropriate supervisory support
  • Encouragement to interact with other researchers
  • Advice from one or more independent sources, internal or external
  • Arrangements that protect the research student in the event of the loss of a supervisor

Chapter B11 covers postgraduate research programmes.

Normally one or (increasingly commonly) two academic supervisors with expertise in the relevant area of study/research supervises the student. This provides the student, on behalf of the institution, with strategic and academic advice and feedback on the stages of the doctoral work. International shared supervision arrangements occur but are infrequent.

Universities are responsible for providing training and continuing professional development for tutors/supervisors of their own doctorate programmes.

Employability

The same points apply as under Bachelor, Employability.

Research students are encouraged to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning during and after their programme of study and to recognise the value of developing transferable skills. Chapter B11 of the QAA Quality Code for Higher Education provides guidance on the support that should be offered to students on research degrees to develop employability skills and Chapter B7 covers external examining.

Assessment

A doctoral student typically receives regular feedback on their work and guidance from the supervisor(s) during the programme.

Summative assessment processes for research qualifications are quite different from those for taught awards and usually include some kind of oral examination.

The assessment normally comprises evaluation of the doctoral thesis by a team of examiners including an internal examiner from the candidate’s institution and an external examiner from another institution. This evaluation considers:

  • Tthe significance and contribution to knowledge of the research undertaken
  • The extent and depth of the candidate’s scholarly awareness and use of related research findings
  • The effectiveness of the research approach used
  • The soundness of findings based on the research evidence obtained in the doctoral programme
  • The professional quality of the writing of the thesis

The candidate is then required to take an oral or ‘viva-voce’ examination (referred to as simply a ‘viva’). He/she is expected to explain and/or defend the aspects of the thesis about which the examiners raise questions.

Examiners submit separate, independent written reports before the viva and a joint report after it. After the viva-voce examination, the examiners may agree to:

  • Award the doctorate
  • Ask the student to ‘revise and resubmit’ the thesis – identifying necessary (minor or major) amendments before it can be accepted
  • Or, award a qualification different from the one for which the research student has been examined (e.g. downgrade to an MPhil)

Guidelines on the assessment of doctoral candidates are available from the QAA’s Quality Code for Higher Education. Chapter B11 covers assessment within postgraduate research programmes.

Certification

The HEIs entitled to award research degrees are autonomously responsible for all aspects of the certification of doctorates. Certified candidates are entitled to be called “Doctor” of the generic or specific subject area indicated in the title of the doctorate.

Guidance is provided by The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (2014), developed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). Qualification descriptors set out the generic outcomes and attributes expected for the award of doctoral degrees.

Qualification titles for doctoral degrees include:

  • Doctor of Philosophy, abbreviated to PhD or DPhil
  • Doctor of Education, abbreviated to EdD
  • Doctor of Clinical Psychology, abbreviated to DClinPsy
  • Doctor of Engineering, abbreviated to EngD or DEng
  • Doctor of Business Administration, abbreviated to DBA

Organisational Variation

In addition to doctorate programmes in the Scottish Universities the Open University, which specialises in ‘open supported learning’, offers doctoral programmes in a wide range of subject areas.

Higher doctorates may be awarded in recognition of a substantial body of original research undertaken over the course of many years. Typically, a portfolio of work which has been previously published in a peer-refereed context is submitted for assessment. Most higher education awarding bodies restrict candidacy to graduates or academic staff of several years’ standing.

Mobility in Higher Education

Student mobility

Scotland Goes Global

A Scotland Goes Global website providing information on study abroad to students and staff at Scotland’s colleges and universities. It also provides some guidance to students who are considering going abroad, has grown from the Scotland Goes Global project. The Scotland Goes Global project was an internationalisation project which NUS Scotland ran from 2012 to 2015 with funding from the Scottish Government. This grew out of an initiative called Developing Scotland’s Global Citizens.

Developing Scotland’s Global Citizens complemented and enhanced existing work on student outward mobility carried out as part of the Students Without Borders project. The overarching objectives of the project were to increase student outward mobility opportunities and encourage greater uptake of study abroad programmes by Scottish students.

Given greater competition for fewer graduate vacancies, there has been an increased interest in the education sector in the role international experience may play in the enhanced employability of students who undertake such initiatives. This is reflected in the widespread support NUS Scotland received from across the sector (from the British Council, HEA, Universities Scotland, Scotland’s Colleges, sparqs, Scottish Funding Council, QAA, and Young Scot).

The project had four strategic themes:

  • raising the profile of European mobility opportunities
  • fostering graduate attributes through mobility
  • supporting the international learning experience at institutional level
  • encouraging a partnership approach across the Scottish educational sector

Together with the Scottish European Educational Trust, NUS Scotland developed an hour long module for teachers to deliver to college and university students on global citizenship and study abroad opportunities. The module worked from the basis of students’ experience of their institution or course and local area. It then took them on a journey to understand why they should consider going global. This was achieved either:

  • Locally by opening up their minds to people in their community who might be from other cultures or online opportunities
  • Or, how they might go about trying to set themselves apart from the crowd by studying abroad as part of their future college or university choices

Erasmus+

The Erasmus+ Programme’s (2014-2020) higher education opportunities are administered in the UK by the British Council. Opportunities for students to learn abroad include:

  • Studies, including at Master’s level
  • Traineeships in businesses
  • Erasmus+ Master loans

Between 2014-16 Erasmus+ awarded €25 million to Scottish higher education projects promoting mobility.

Saltire Scholarships – funding for outward mobility initiatives

The first government funded projects giving Scottish students overseas study opportunities were announced in November 2012. The projects are designed to give students the chance to live and learn overseas as part of their studies and include opportunities in India, China, Canada, the United States and Europe. Saltire Scholarships for Outward Mobility are funded through a competitive process. They are open to Scotland’s universities, colleges and their student associations. A total of £130,000 was available in 2014.

The aim is to increase the number of students undertaking study or training overseas by funding:

  • Mobility for individual students (to be described as Saltire Scholars)
  • Structures within institutions and student associations to support outwardly mobile students

Examples of projects that received funding in 2014 were:

  • Dundee College – £15,900 Computing and Hospitality exchange to North Virginia and Florida, USA
  • Edinburgh Napier University – £18,516 for a three-week study trip for 12 Health students in the USA
  • Edinburgh Napier University – £12,893 Exchange for 11 Computing students to visit Zhengzhuo University of Light Industry in China for three weeks
  • University of Edinburgh – £30,000 Develop the Widening Horizons Programme to involve as many students as possible across different subjects in visits to North America, China and Europe
  • Glasgow Caledonian University – £9,000 Ten-day Social Work conference for ten students with partner institutions in Sweden, Scotland, Germany, South Africa and India
  • University of Glasgow – £3,025 A five-day exchange for 11 Law students to Mainz, Germany
  • University of Stirling – £4,000 Study opportunity in China for four Business students
  • University of the West of Scotland – £11,050 A week-long Primary Education exchange scheme for 30 students to Ecole Saint-Joseph Saint Galmier and the Université de Nantes Ecole Supérieure du Professorat et de l’Education (ESPE) in France and Villa de Guadarrama Primary School, Spain
  • University of the West of Scotland – £7,170 Criminal Justice exchange for 12 students for one week in Maribor, Slovenia

For 2017/18 90 scholarships have been awarded (as of December 2017). The host countries that groups of students will visit are:

  • U.S.A (30 grants awarded)
  • India (17 grants awarded)
  • China (16 grants awarded)
  • Canada (16 grants awarded)
  • Pakistan (11 grants awarded)

There are 100 scholarships available at around £4000 each, offered on a matched funding basis with participating universities.

Study in Europe – SAAS Portability Pilot

For the first time, as part of a pilot initiative to encourage more Scottish students to study abroad, Scottish domiciled students studying at eligible European universities could apply for the same bursary and loan support as students attending university in Scotland.
 
The pilot ran over three years, the first intake of students was in academic year 2014-15, with the final intake in academic year 2016-17. Students were supported for the duration of their undergraduate course. The Scottish Government have been evaluating the pilot throughout the three year intake. For the pilot, only students studying at approved universities were eligible to apply for student support from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS). When considering which universities could take part, the focus was on publicly funded universities that delivered a wide variety of undergraduate courses that were completely taught in English. The partner universities were:

  • Groningen University, Netherlands
  • Maastricht University, Netherlands
  • Malmo University, Sweden
  • Rhine Waal University, Germany
  • Southern Denmark University, Denmark

Academic Staff mobility

Erasmus+

The British Council, as the National Agency in the UK, has managed the Erasmus programme since 2007. From 2014 (until 2020), it is the National Agency for the Erasmus+ Programme. Its role is to administer and disburse funds to institutions and promote the programme within the UK.

Erasmums+ provides opportunities for higher education staff to undertake professional development activities, including:

  • Training or teaching
  • Attending workshops delivered by businesses

The previous Erasmus exchange programme ran from 2007-2013. It allowed for the mobility of academic members of staff and administrative staff to spend a short period of time at a partner university. Staff would undertake either teaching, work shadowing or attending an Erasmus staff training week.

Participation in Erasmus varied across institutions. To take one example, 22 members of staff from Edinburgh Napier University participated in 2010-11 and funding was allocated for a total of 26 staff members in 2011/12 (22 academic and 4 administrative staff). The number of staff from Scottish HEIs participating in Erasmus mobility nearly doubled between 2004-05 and 2010-11.

Research links

Other opportunities for staff mobility in HE arise through Scotland’s research links, including with the USA and China.

USA Plan

The Scottish Government’s Plan for Engagement in the USA was published 4 July 2010, and includes research links. Scottish educational and research institutions already enjoy strong links with the USA; currently around 30% of Scotland’s research collaborations are with the USA.

Scotland has pioneered the development of highly successful research collaborations between Scottish universities. These pan-Scotland ‘research pools’ provide easy and attractive opportunities for international research collaboration.

As an example the Universities of Strathclyde, St Andrews, Heriot-Watt and Glasgow, together with Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology, are collaborating in a project. This is supported by a £16 million grant from Research Councils UK, £99,000 from the Scottish Funding Council and £250,000 from Scottish Enterprise. The partnership is designed to capitalise on leading research in the photonics sector, in fields including life sciences and renewable energy, and the commercial opportunities this research offers.

In 2012 nine new researcher visits were funded through the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) international exchange programme. These involve researchers from the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Strathclyde, Abertay, St Andrews and Dundee.

China Strategy

The Government published its five-year China Strategy in December 2012. The strategy identifies four key priority areas to focus its activities and resources. In addition to trade opportunities and cultural and sporting links, the China strategy aims to:

  • Expand and deepen Scotland‟s education links with China
  • Increase collaboration in research and development between China and Scotland

A specific target in the Strategy is to ‘Encourage participation in initiatives which target mobility and internationalisation of students, staff and researchers’.

United Kingdom – Wales

Higher Education

The definition of higher education, according to Schedule 6 of the Education Reform Act 1988, is education at a higher standard than courses leading to General Certificate of Education Advanced level (A Level) or Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) National Certificate or National Diploma. These are qualifications at Level 3 on the Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales (CQFW). Higher education courses can be provided by different types of institution: higher education institutions (HEIs) directly funded by government through the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), and further education (FE) institutions. The article on ‘Types of Higher Education Institutions’ describes the different types of institution, and the remaining articles in the chapter focus on the range of programmes and levels of study that feature in the system. Higher education (HE) in Wales shares a number of characteristics and structural features with HE in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. In all four parts of the United Kingdom, HEIs are autonomous self-governing bodies that offer degrees by virtue of their own degree awarding powers (DAPs) or the degree awarding powers of another institution. These degree awarding powers are recognised by the UK authorities (Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, UK and Scottish Parliaments). Institutions are responsible for appointing and employing their own staff.

Reflecting these commonalities and shared missions, a number of sector-led bodies operate on behalf of higher education institutions across the UK. These bodies include:

  • Universities UK (UUK), whose members are the executive heads of UK institutions
  • GuildHE, which, along with UUK, is a recognised representative body for higher education in the UK
  • the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which coordinates student applications services across the UK
  • the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), which collects data from higher education providers to support UK governments and higher education funding bodies in their regulatory and funding work
  • Advance HE, a sector agency promoting equality and diversity, learning and teaching, and leadership and governance in higher education – since March 2018, it has included the Higher Education Academy (HEA), which offers professional development opportunities and accreditation for courses that support staff who teach and / or support learning
  • the Committee of University Chairs (CUC), which represents the chairs of UK university governing bodies, and develops and promotes governance standards for higher education in the UK.

Within the context of institutional autonomy, some common approaches and frameworks are used. There is no system for the accreditation of institutions, but the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) makes judgements on UK institutions’ capability to manage their own quality and standards, and the UK Quality code for Higher Education provides the definitive reference point for institutions.

Assessment of research operates on a UK-wide basis through the Research Excellence Framework (REF), although there are differences in the way the funding bodies use the results to allocate funding for research infrastructure.

Grants for specific research projects and programmes are administered on a UK-wide basis by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a body established in 2018 following the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

In addition to the commonalities, there are also some differences in higher education provision in the UK. The most notable of these are differences in tuition fees and student support, the funding of institutions and governance arrangements. These divergences have developed, in particular, since the late 1990s when the devolved administrations of Wales and Northern Ireland took on responsibility for education. Teaching in higher education institutions in Wales is now supported to a much greater extent by student tuition fees than by direct grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), which is concentrated on certain subjects and levels of study. Note that the Welsh Government has been exploring the establishment of a Tertiary Education and Research Commission for Wales, which would take on the functions of the HEFCW.

Policy objectives for higher education 

Within the UK, higher education is a devolved policy area, which means that the Welsh Government takes most decisions about higher education in Wales. The Fifth Assembly Government, elected in 2016, and the Fourth Assembly Government, 2011-16, have undertaken several major higher education reviews and made consequent reforms, as indicated below.

For an overview of recent shifts and trends in higher education, see the Universities UK publication Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education 2018, the latest in a series that provides a summary of annual statistical data about the UK higher education sector in the context of the trends of the previous decade.

Policy statement on higher education 

The Policy statement on Higher Education, published by the Welsh Government in 2013, contains policy priorities for higher education until 2020 and envisages higher education providers:

  • interacting with businesses to stimulate innovation and economic growth
  • working to enhance the employability of all graduates, whatever their age, background or course of study
  • working in partnership with the Welsh Government to develop international links
  • widening access to higher education
  • collaborating with further education providers to ensure that opportunities to progress are available to learners
  • making best use of opportunities to exploit new technologies
  • striving to provide the highest quality learning experience to all those with the potential to benefit
  • developing the sector’s reputation for excellence in research
  • continuing to support the development of Welsh-medium higher education
  • developing more flexible models of provision to build a more successful and sustainable future.

The Policy Statement on Skills, published in 2014, outlines challenges and responses to support the employability of individuals, tackling poverty and strengthening the creation of jobs and growth. It primarily addresses the post-19 element of further education (FE), higher education (HE), work-based learning and adult community learning. The statement reiterates some of the issues addressed in the Policy Statement on Higher Education, highlighting the following:

  • the continued strengthening of joint delivery arrangements in the FE and HE sectors
  • the strengthening of Welsh-medium HE
  • the 2013 review of higher education funding and student finance arrangements, which focused on the promotion of social mobility and widening access to HE, the funding of HE, full- and part-time tuition fees policy, and the role of the HEFCW.

Annual remit letter to HEFCW 

The Welsh Government sets out its specific priorities for the higher education sector for each academic year in an annual remit letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), a regulatory and funding body that works to develop and sustain quality higher education in Wales. HEFCW is a Welsh Government sponsored body that was established under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992

HEFCW’s priorities for 2019/20, set out in the letter published in March 2019, include support for:

  • providing additional payments in relation to expensive subjects, both full-time and part-time
  • developing a methodology within the funding formula for higher education institutions (HEIs) which recognises the increased numbers of applications for undergraduate part-time and postgraduate courses in Wales
  • providing additional grant support for Welsh domiciled students aged 60 and over who want to study postgraduate Master’s courses
  • increasing openness and transparency around the use of student fee income by HEIs and monitoring fee levels in postgraduate and part-time provision to protect students from disproportionate and unwarranted fee increases
  • considering whether greater clarity can be offered by HEIs to prospective students about the courses they offer, the outcomes and destinations of their students, and which of their courses lead to professional qualifications
  • focusing on providing an excellent learning experience, ensuring that students are equipped with the necessary skills, and ensuring that students receive value for money from their studies.

Diamond review of higher education funding in Wales 

Commencing in spring 2014, Professor Sir Ian Diamond and an expert review panel conducted a wide-ranging review of higher education (HE) sector funding and student finance arrangements, with the remit of providing costed recommendations to the Welsh Government that would support the long-term financial sustainability of the HE sector. The final report, Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance Arrangements in Wales, was published in September 2016. It recommended the introduction of:

  • an annual, non-means-tested universal maintenance grant of £1000 (€1129.81*)
  • an additional means-tested grant for full- and part-time undergraduate students
  • replacement of the tuition fee grant for full-time undergraduate students with a student loan, meaning that Welsh students would be liable for repayable tuition fees of up to £9000 (€10,168.34*).

The Welsh Government endorsed the principles contained in the report and, in particular, accepted the three main changes highlighted above. Following a consultation on the development and implementation of the changes, which ran from November 2016 to February 2017, these changes to student support and fees were introduced from the 2018/19 academic year.

 * Exchange rate used: €1 = £0.88, ECB 16 September 2019.

Hazelkorn review of post-compulsory education 

In 2015, the Welsh Government commissioned Professor Ellen Hazelkorn to review the oversight of post-compulsory education in Wales, with particular reference to the future role and function of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW). The review concidered how to better align governance and funding arrangements to ensure a learner-focused system that enhances educational and career opportunities. The resulting report, Towards 2030: a Framework for Building a World-Class Post-Compulsory Education System for Wales, was published in March 2016. It emphasised the need for post-compulsory education and training to operate as a single sector, and recommended ways to regulate and monitor the sector to ensure sustainability, coherence and effectiveness, including the establishment of a single, regulatory oversight and coordinating authority for post-compulsory education.

Proposed Tertiary Education and Research Commission 

Part of the Welsh Government’s response to the Hazelkorn review was the launch of a consultation in June 2017 on proposals to create a new Tertiary Education and Research Commission for Wales, which would operate at arm’s length from the Welsh Government. The White Paper, Public Good and a Prosperous Wales: Building a Reformed PCET System, proposed that the Commission would be given responsibility for planning; funding; contracting; ensuring quality; financial monitoring; audit; performance; risk; and leading on research funding. The functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) would be transferred to the new authority.

A second consultation ran from April to July 2018, developing some of the ideas in the White Paper and explaining in more detail how the new Commission might operate. The Welsh Government has indicated that the responses to the consultation will be taken into account as the policy develops during the legislative process.

Reid review of government-funded research and innovation in Wales 

A further recommendation of the Hazelkorn report was for a review of research and innovation strategy and policy. In January 2017, the Welsh Government commissioned Professor Graeme Reid to undertake a review of the strengths, gaps and future potential to sustain and develop strong research and innovation activity in Wales. The resulting Review of Government Funded Research and Innovation in Wales was published in early 2018 and recommended that the Welsh Government:

  • increase the visibility and influence of Welsh research by creating a new Welsh Research and Innovation London Office (WRILO)
  • strengthen the Welsh research base and enable Welsh researchers to attract a greater share of UK-wide funding, by implementing the Diamond Review’s recommendation for maintaining the value in real terms of quality related (‘QR’) funding (which supports original and applied research), and by creating an additional ‘Future of Wales Fund’ to incentivise Welsh researchers to win funding from outside Wales
  • increase the visibility, coherence and impact of research and innovation in Wales, by creating a single overarching brand for Wales’ innovation activities.

In a written statement, the Welsh Government accepted all the recommendations in principle, and announced that it would immediately take forward the recommendation of a dedicated London presence to promote Welsh research and innovation.

Draft higher education strategy to 2027 

In April 2016, the Welsh Government requested the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) to work in partnership with providers to develop a strategy for higher education in Wales for the next decade, which would update the Policy Statement on Higher Education made in 2013. In December 2016, HEFCW submitted its Draft Higher Education Strategy to 2027 to the Government, which included a range of strategic objectives relating to the Welsh research base and the global standing of Welsh higher education.

The Welsh Government subsequently decided that, given the proposals from the Hazelkorn review for a new post-compulsory education oversight body, and the review of government-funded research and innovation in Wales, it would be more appropriate to develop a tertiary education, training and research strategy. The draft higher education strategy developed by HEFCW will inform future policy development in this area.

Legislative framework 

Higher education is a devolved policy area, meaning that since devolution in 1999, the Welsh Government has taken most decisions in this area. However, many functions had already transferred to Wales in the decades prior to devolution. For an analysis of the impact of devolution on higher education in Wales, see the Universities UK (UUK) 2008 research report, Devolution and Higher Education.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) in Wales are autonomous self-governing bodies. Although  degree-awarding powers and access to a ‘university title’ are controlled by the UK Government on a UK-wide basis (see the article on ‘Types of Higher Education Institutions’), the structure of programmes is not regulated by law. Subject to the status of their degree-awarding powers, HEIs are free to design and offer such programmes and awards as they wish. However, all institutions structure their programmes along broadly similar lines (a three-cycle framework, incorporating undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral study), which conforms to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) qualifications framework.

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) was set up under Section 62 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 as an arms-length body responsible for the distribution of public funds for teaching and research infrastructure in Wales.

Student finance (levels of tuition fees and student support) were devolved under the Higher Education Act 2004. The Act brought about substanial changes to what institutions could charge full-time undergraduate students from 2006, and further changes to the regulations prescribing the maximum annual amount for tuition fees have applied since 2012. Higher education institutions (HEIs) in Wales have, like those in England, been able to charge students up to £9000 (€10,168.34*) a year for tuition, since autumn 2012. This is subject to them committing to measures to widen access for students from backgrounds under-represented in higher education and having their proposed approach agreed by HEFCW. Fees for postgraduate students are not regulated. Public funding for research, other than research infrastructure, is not devolved to Wales; it is allocated by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) on a UK-wide basis.

The legislative framework changed in 2015 with the passing of the Higher Education (Wales) Act 2015. The Act revises HEFCW’s regulatory functions and makes provision for a new higher education regulatory system for Wales. It aims to:

  • ensure robust and proportionate regulation of institutions in Wales whose courses are supported by Welsh Government-backed higher education grants and loans
  • safeguard the contribution made to the public good arising from the Welsh Government’s significant financial subsidy of higher education
  • maintain a strong focus on fair access to higher education
  • preserve and protect the institutional autonomy and academic freedom of Wales’ universities.

* Exchange rate used: €1 = £0.88, ECB 16 September 2019.

Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) 

Although not required by law to do so, all institutions design their qualifications in accordance with the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ). This is developed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and forms part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. The FHEQ is intended to promote consistency across the sector, by facilitating a shared and common understanding of the expectations associated with typical qualifications, and ensuring that qualifications with the same titles are of an equivalent academic standard.  

The fundamental premise of the FHEQ is that qualifications should be awarded based on achievement of outcomes and attainment rather than years of study.

The five levels of the FHEQ are numbered 4–8 (Levels 1–3 cover levels of education that precede higher education).

Qualification descriptors illustrate the distinct level of intellectual achievement for each level of the framework. They indicate the threshold academic standard for those qualification types, in terms of the levels of knowledge and understanding and the types of abilities that holders of the relevant qualification are expected to have (FHEQ, pages 19-32).

Subject benchmark statements make explicit the nature and characteristics of awards in a specific subject area, and set out the attributes and capabilities of graduates in that subject. They exemplify what the generic outcomes set out in the qualification descriptors in the FHEQ might look like in practice.

The main types of qualifications are illustrated in the following table.

FHEQ levelCorresponding FQ-EHEA cycleTypical higher education qualifications within each level
8Third cycle (end-of-cycle) qualificationsDoctoral degrees (e.g. PhD/DPhil, EdD, DBA, DClinPsy)
7Second cycle (end-of-cycle) qualificationsMaster’s degrees (e.g. MPhil, MLitt, MRes, MA, MSc)Integrated master’s degrees (e.g. MEng, MChem, MPhys, MPharm)Primary qualifications (or first degrees) in medicine, dentistry and veterinary science (e.g. MB, ChB, MB BS, BDS, BVSc, BVMS)
7 Postgraduate diplomasPostgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) / Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE)Postgraduate certificates
6First cycle (end-of-cycle) qualificationsBachelor’s degrees with honours (e.g. BA/BSc Hons)Bachelor’s degrees
6 Professional Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE)Graduate DiplomasGraduate Certificates
5Short-cycle (within or linked to the first cycle) qualificationsFoundation Degrees (e.g. FdA, FdSc)Diplomas of Higher Education (DipHE)Higher National Diplomas (HND)
4 Higher National Certificates (HNC)Certificates of Higher Education (CertHE)

Adapted from QAA (2014). Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), page 17)

The FHEQ has been self-certified as compatible with the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area (FQ-EHEA).

Note: The FHEQ is not a credit framework. For a description of the use of credit in Welsh higher education.

Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales (CQFW) 

The Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales (CQFW) is an overarching structure designed to provide greater clarity on the qualifications system. The CQFW articulates with the FHEQ, which forms its higher education ‘pillar’, and all HEIs with their own degree awarding powers (DAPs) make use of it. For further information, see the subheading ‘Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales (CQFW)’ in the article on the ‘National Qualifications Framework’ in Wales.

Structure of the academic year 

The structure of the academic year is not regulated by law. However, for funding and reporting purposes, the academic year runs from 1 August to 31 July.

The teaching year typically starts in mid to late September / early October and ends in mid to late June. The year is traditionally divided by breaks into three teaching terms, although some institutions organise teaching along a two-semester system. A small number of institutions offer accelerated degrees, which require student attendance for longer periods during the year.

For postgraduate (second and third cycle) students, the organisation of time varies. Where a taught  master’s programme has a duration of one year, this normally means a full calendar year, e.g. October to October.

Teaching typically takes place between 9.00 a.m. and 6.00 p.m., from Monday to Friday, but may take place at other times. Part-time courses may run during the day or in the evening.

Bachelor

Branches of study

Bachelor’s degrees with honours are the largest group of first cycle programmes (undergraduate programmes). They are often known as honours degrees, or as first degrees. Bachelor’s degrees can also be awarded without honours.

Programmes leading to a bachelor’s degree normally last three or four years for full-time students. Three years is the most common duration, but some programmes add a ‘sandwich’ or placement year (usually spent in work experience or as a year abroad, the latter being common for languages degrees).

Higher education institutions (HEIs) which hold degree awarding powers are responsible for the design of their own programmes and awards.

Programme design

In designing bachelor’s degree programmes, HEIs refer to the qualification descriptor for a higher education qualification at Level 6 on the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ): bachelor’s degree with honours. This describes the threshold academic standard for the qualification in terms of the levels of knowledge and understanding, and the types of abilities, which holders of this qualification are expected to have.

In Wales, the FHEQ forms the higher education ‘pillar’ of the Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales (CQFW). The CQFW is an overarching structure designed to provide clarity on the qualifications system in Wales. It covers higher education, regulated qualifications (which include general and vocational qualifications), and Quality Assured Lifelong Learning (QALL).

Higher education institutions (HEIs) also refer to subject benchmark statements, which set out expectations about standards of degrees in a range of subject areas. These statements, which also form part of the FHEQ, describe what gives a discipline its coherence and identity, and define what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the abilities and skills needed to develop understanding or competence in the subject. Subject benchmark statements exist for a range of honours degree subjects and some combine or make reference to professional standards required by external professional or regulatory bodies in the relevant discipline.

Programme credits

The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) is a framework based on the outcomes represented by the main qualification titles. It is not an integrated credit and qualifications framework, nor is its use dependent on credit. Most HEIs also use credit-based systems alongside the FHEQ, and may use the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS).

All UK credit frameworks (other than the ECTS) operate according to the same underpinning principles. For example, 10 notional hours of learning equate to one credit, and 120 credits to a volume of learning that a learner in the first cycle will spend, on average, to achieve the specified learning outcomes in one academic year. Bachelor’s degrees awarded with honours have a typical total volume of at least 360 credits.

Guidance on the use of credit in the design of programmes is provided by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education (academic credit is described in the advice and guidance document on course design and development).

Programme composition and variability

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) provides details via its website of the wide variety of courses offered. Programmes typically focus on a particular subject area, but there are also combined studies programmes involving two, or possibly three, specialisations. There is also normally choice within each programme. Typically, a relatively fixed menu of modules covers the core knowledge of the subject, and is combined with a menu of options in the more specialised aspects of the subject area. 

The terminology used in this area varies considerably, as higher education is a diverse sector made up of autonomous providers who use different approaches to the definition of academic regulations. Some of these different approaches can be summarised as follows.

  • A student registers on a course made up of compulsory modules and optional modules that leads to the award of a qualification.
  • A student registers on a programme made up of compulsory modules and optional modules that leads to the award of a qualification.
  • A student registers on a course that awards credit that can be counted towards a qualification. 

For a more detailed consideration of the variety of interpretations and models that exist, see the December 2011 report by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), What is a Course?.

Admission requirements

Institutions determine their own admissions policies and the minimum entry requirements for each programme. Entry is competitive, with wide variations between institutions and programmes in terms of the competition for places. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) coordinates admissions across the UK. UCAS is funded by participating higher education institutions (HEIs) and from the fees paid by each applicant.

In collaboration with the UK higher education sector, UCAS has developed the ‘UCAS Tariff’, a means of allocating points to post-16 qualifications used for entry to higher education. This was developed to allow HEIs to make broad comparisons of the wide range of qualifications and to help with management information. HEIs are not obliged to express their entry requirements in terms of UCAS tariff points. Those that do may additionally require some or all of the qualifications for entry to be in specific subjects and at specific grades.

For undergraduate / first cycle programmes, the minimum entry requirement is usually two or three A Level passes, as well as a minimum number of GCSE passes at specific grades. Although these remain the most common form of entry qualification held by young entrants to higher education, a wide range of other qualifications is acceptable for entry. They include the Welsh Baccalaureate Advanced Diploma, the International Baccalaureate, and some vocational options such as BTEC National Qualifications

Most applicants submit their higher education applications before taking end-of-course examinations. To decide who should receive offers, HEI admissions officers typically use applicants’ known results in GCSE and / or AS Level examinations to assess their potential. They also consider personal statements, school references and teachers’ assessments of likely grades. HEIs do not routinely interview applicants for most programmes. However, applicants for entry to professional and vocational programmes (such as initial teacher training and medicine) are usually required to attend a selection interview.

For some highly oversubscribed programmes, such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and law, applicants may be required to take an additional admissions test. Examples of such tests include the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) and the University Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT).

HEIs may also make ‘unconditional offers’, meaning that the applicant has no requirements to meet to secure their place, such as achieving particular A Level grades. Analysis by UCAS indicates that this practice has become more common in recent years.

Information for applicants on programmes and entry requirements is available from UCAS, and guidance for HEIs exists in the advice and guidance document ‘Admissions, recruitment and widening access’, which is part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

Widening participation

Although individual higher education institutions (HEIs) have autonomy over the qualifications they will accept for entry to their courses, at the same time and over several decades, the broad policy objective of facilitating access to higher education for disadvantaged and under-represented groups has been a focus for government policy across the UK. In 1963 the Robbins report rejected the concept of a limited pool of ability and argued that higher education was an important compensator for social disadvantage. The Welsh Government continues to believe that higher education should be available to all those with the potential to benefit, regardless of age, gender, mode and level of study, country of origin and background.

Welsh Government policy on higher education access and participation is implemented by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW).

The HEFCW also has responsibility for approving HEIs’ fee and access plans. These plans, made on an annual basis, set out the measures that HEIs have put in place to improve access, equality and student retention. For a description of their place in the system, see the subheading ‘Fees within public higher education’ in the article on ‘Higher Education Funding’.

Guidance published by HEFCW assists HEIs in formulating their fee and access plans and in evaluating their widening access activities.

Reaching Wider is a long-term (HEFCW) programme that aims to increase higher education participation from targeted groups and communities in Wales. It aims to raise educational aspirations and skills and create innovative study opportunities and learning pathways to higher education. The programme engages two main groups of people of all ages who are under-represented in higher education: people living in areas of deprivation, and children in care and care leavers. It operates through three regional hubs covering north and mid Wales, south-west Wales and south-east Wales.

Mature learners

For mature learners, who may lack formal qualifications, there are well-established routes into higher education. Many institutions give credit for prior study and informal learning acquired through work or other experiences, called ‘Accreditation of Prior Learning’ (APL). Arrangements for APL vary among individual higher education institutions (HEIs), which have autonomy in this respect.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) UK Quality Code for Higher Education advice and guidance document on admissions, recruitment and widening access does not specify the criteria to be used for selection. It does, though, encourage each institution to ensure that its policies and procedures are fair, reliable and appropriate, and prompts them to adapt their processes to cater for different types of student.

The Access to Higher Education Diploma provides an alternative fast-track route to higher education, designed to meet the needs of those returning to study after some time and who may lack formal qualifications.

There are no direct student number controls (limits on student numbers) in higher education in Wales.

Curriculum

There is no national curriculum for higher education. Higher education providers decide what programmes to offer within the context of their organisational mission and other strategic factors. These factors may include Welsh Government policy for higher education; an assessment of student demand for existing and new programmes; and advice from external bodies, such as employers and industry, about workforce needs.

Providers that hold degree awarding powers (DAP) design their own programmes with reference to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) UK Quality Code for Higher Education. This includes advice and guidance on the expectations and practices providers must adhere to with regard to course design and development. They are also expected to comply with the specifications for threshold academic standards set out in the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) for programmes at the relevant level of the framework. Providers without their own DAP do not design their own programmes, but act as delivery organisations working with bodies with degree awarding powers.

The QAA also provides subject benchmark statements, which set out expectations about standards of honours degrees in a range of subject areas. They describe what gives a discipline its coherence and identity, and define what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the abilities and skills needed to develop understanding or competence in the subject. The statements are intended to assist those involved in programme design, delivery and review. They are integral to the QAA UK Quality Code for Higher Education – see the advice and guidance document on assessment.

Teaching methods

Teaching methods are decided by the individual lecturer, department, faculty or institution, or a combination of these. They may include the following, depending on the subject, mode of delivery and institution:

  • lecture m a presentation or talk on a particular topic
  • seminar – a discussion or classroom session that focuses on a particular topic or project
  • webinar – a virtual lecture or seminar
  • tutorial – a meeting that involves one-to-one or small group supervision, feedback or detailed discussion on a particular topic or project
  • project supervision – a meeting with a supervisor to discuss a particular piece of work
  • demonstration – a session in which a practical technique or skill is demonstrated
  • practical class or workshop – a session involving the acquisition, through practical application, of a particular skill or technique
  • supervised time in studio / workshop – time in which students work independently but under supervision, in a specialist facility
  • fieldwork ­– practical work conducted at an external site
  • external visit – a visit to a location away from the usual learning spaces, to experience a particular environment, event, or exhibition relevant to the course of study
  • work-based and placement learning – learning that takes place in the workplace.

Source: Explaining Staff Teaching Qualifications: Guidance about Providing Information for Students (QAA, 2013, Appendix 3).

As outlined in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education advice and guidance document on learning and teaching (p. 2), there are two expectations for quality:

‘Courses are well designed, provide a high-quality academic experience for all students and enable a student’s achievement to be reliably assessed. Effective learning and teaching combined robust pedagogic approaches with relevant discipline knowledge, subject-specific and transferable skills, aligned to providers’ descriptors of graduate attributes, appropriate to the academic level of study and reflective of the changing world. Learning and teaching displacys breadth, depth, pace and challenge.

From admission through to completion, all students are provided with the support that they need to succeed in and benefit from higher education. Staff are appropriately supported and developed, in turn, to support their students. Learning and teaching activity is inclusive in its approach, providing all students with parity of quality of learning opportunities, ensuring they are appropriately supported to flourish.’

Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework

As part of its renewed focus on the quality of teaching in higher education, the 2015-17 UK Government introduced a Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) in England, to mirror the excellence framework that already existed for university-based research. Higher education institutions (HEIs) in Wales are also able to participate in the TEF, which includes a set of outcome-focused criteria and metrics, underpinned by an external assessment process undertaken by an independent quality body. However, while in England performance on the TEF is linked to the level of fees that HEIs may charge students, this is not the case in Wales.

Flexible, open and distance learning

Flexible learning – accessing education in a way that is responsive in pace, place and / or mode of delivery, and that is often supported by the use of credit accumulation and transfer – is available in higher education.

Flexible learning can include the use of technology to enable:

  • remote or online study
  • work-based learning and employer engagement
  • part-time learning
  • accelerated or decelerated programmes
  • distance or blended learning.

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) has a remit from the Welsh Government to support flexibility in learning, such as through part-time study and pathways such as degree apprenticeships.

The Higher Education Academy in Wales (HEA Wales), part of the sector development body Advance HE, provides a range of resources for HEIs developing flexible provision.

The Open University, which was established in 1969 and admitted its first students in 1971, specialises in ‘supported open learning’. It is a major provider of distance learning, and the UK’s largest university in terms of student numbers. Other institutions increasingly offer courses on this basis.

The Open University is also involved in the provision of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), offered free and at scale through its company FutureLearn, launched in 2013. A wide range of UK and international universities and other partners, such as specialist organisations, offer courses through FutureLearn and other similar online platforms.

Progression of students

Each institution has its own regulations governing student progression within a programme. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) provides advice and guidance as part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. For example, the advice and guidance document on enabling student achievement recommends that institutions support students from their admission and transition into higher education (HE) to their completion and transmission out of HE by, for example:

  • engaging students with managing their own progression
  • reinforcing transition and progression through the student lifecycle
  • identifying the staff roles that are integral to enabling student progression.

Guidance at institutional and programme level can support implementation of this recommendation by referencing the following areas.

  • The extent to which a student’s overall success in a programme can include failure in part of the programme, where this is permitted by institutional rules and regulations. In modular systems, guidance can helpfully distinguish between core and optional modules and include details about any modules that must be passed to meet Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body (PSRB) requirements.
  • Defining those marks that contribute to the decision about whether a student receives an award.  
  • Clarifying the basis on which:
  • retakes or resubmissions can occur, making clear the number and timing permitted and procedures
  • resubmitting a dissertation can occur
  • repeating a work-based or other type of practical assessment can occur
  • repeating an oral examination can occur.
  • The rules for deferring or not completing an assessment, together with any special assessment conditions or penalties that may apply, including any restriction on the marks, grades or levels of award that can be obtained on the basis of retaken or deferred assessments. They should clearly state any time limit for completing the course.

Employability

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has defined employability as:

‘a set of attributes, skills and knowledge that all labour market participants should possess to ensure that they have the capability of being effective in the workplace – to the benefit of themselves, their employer and the wider economy.’

This definition is cited in Future Fit: Preparing Graduates for the World of Work, a 2009 joint publication from Universities UK and the CBI, illustrating how universities and business can work together to help equip graduates for their future working lives (page 8).

Strategies and policy statements

Enhancing the employability of all graduates from Welsh higher education institutions (HEIs) is a key priority for the Welsh Government. The Policy Statement on Higher Education (2013) expressed the policy priorities relating to employability as interacting with businesses to stimulate innovation and economic growth; and working to enhance the employability of all graduates, whatever their age, background or course of study.

A number of additional policy and strategy documents mirror this aim.

The Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance Arrangements in Wales (the Diamond review, 2016), recognised the pivotal role of employers and included an intention to enhance partnership working between employers and higher education. Its proposals also included introducing better processes for the approval of frameworks for higher level apprenticeships, along with Welsh Government funding to expand capacity for employment-focused Level 4Level 5 and Level 6 qualifications.

The Draft Welsh Government Higher Education Strategy to 2027 (2016), which was developed by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales in partnership with higher education institutions, is also being used to inform policy development. Its key objectives include making graduates more entrepreneurial and employable; ensuring that Welsh HEIs work together to meet regional and cross-Wales employer needs, and to provide a skilled and adaptable workforce; and making the higher education system readily accessible to external partners.

Collaboration with business

There have been a number of inquiries and reports addressing business and university interaction, and analysing the barriers to such interaction. These have found that differences across industry sectors and across HEIs mean that there is no single model of effective collaboration. Notable reports include those listed below.

  • A Review of Business-University Collaboration (the Wilson review, 2012) called for universities to be at the heart of the economy, to promote growth in the UK and to improve the employability of graduates. The report recommended increasing opportunities for students to acquire relevant work experience, for example, through sandwich degree programmes, internships and work‐based programmes. The Government’s response set out initiatives to promote employability skills, research and innovation, work placements and internships, and university-business collaboration at the local level.
  • Forging Futures: Building Higher Level Skills through University and Employer Collaboration, published by Universities UK and the (then) UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) in September 2014, explored innovative collaborations between universities and employers to create alternative pathways and opportunities for the development of relevant higher level skills.
  • Innovation Nation (2017) included a collection of case studies highlighting the innovation activities undertaken by Welsh higher education institutions (HEIs), with partners in the private, public and voluntary (third) sectors. The case studies, which focused on the themes of creating and safeguarding jobs; attracting investment; skills and work-based learning; and collaborative projects also indicated the value of these activities to the Welsh economy. A second collection of case studies, Innovation Nation: On common ground, was published in June 2018. Its focus was the impact HEIs have on local, national and international communities.

The Higher Education Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI) survey examines annually how universities collaborate with commerce, community bodies and the public sector in all four nations of the UK. The National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) also publishes an annual ‘State of the Relationship’ report that provides examples of collaboration between universities, business and policy makers.

A number of tools have been introduced to support university-business collaboration.

  • The Lambert Toolkit, launched in 2016, facilitates negotiations between potential partners and includes examples of best practice to support innovation.
  • Placer, launched in 2017, connects students seeking work experience with employers offering such opportunities.
  • konfer, also launched in 2017, promotes university-business collaboration by providing businesses with research, researchers and services in UK universities, and universities with potential project partners.

In October 2017, the Government announced the development of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), with the aim of introducing a performance assessment for knowledge exchange that mirrors those for university teaching (the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, TEF) and research (the Research Excellence Framework, REF). The KEF will bring together a range of measures of impact from higher education institutions’ collaboration and knowledge exchange work, enabling them to benchmark and develop their own performance, and increasing their accountability to taxpayers, local government and businesses. Consultation on proposals for the KEF ended in March 2019, and decisions on implementation are due to be published in late 2019.

Also in 2017, the Government published its Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain Fit for the Future. This White Paper aims to increase productivity and drive growth across the UK, and outlines the ‘need to be able to capture the value from […] science, research and creativity and support innovations that drive […] productivity.’ The strategy pledged to ‘do more to address some of the frictions in the system to support collaboration and the flow of knowledge between research and industry, accelerating the path to market.’ (p. 72)

Apprenticeships

The development of higher level apprenticeships (at Level 4 and Level 5 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), and of degree apprenticeships (Level 6 and Level 7), is a priority in Wales. This is reflected in the 2019/20 annual remit letter from the Welsh Government to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW). The aims are to widen access to the professions and to develop the higher level technical skills needed to improve productivity and support businesses to compete internationally.

Degree apprenticeships involve employers, universities and relevant professional bodies co-designing apprenticeships which meet full occupational competency and involve a degree (bachelor’s or master’s).

Careers advice

All higher education institutions (HEIs) in Wales provide a careers service for students. Advisers usually take a student through the careers choices that they can follow with their degree and the direction they can take. They discuss career opportunities such as graduate placements, further study opportunities, careers fairs and job opportunities abroad. Students can still contact the service after graduation and may be referred to a university closer to where they then live. University careers services may also offer free CV workshops, internet access, coaching on interview techniques and support with job application forms. Careers fairs provide graduates with information and give them an opportunity to meet potential employers.

Careers services can receive support by subscribing to the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU), an independent research charity that works as an agency of the higher education representative bodies, Universities UK and GuildHE. The HECSU also conducts and commissions research on student and graduate career development and employment.  

The UK Quality Code for Higher Education advice and guidance document on enabling student achievement addresses the ways in which higher education providers should enable students to develop and achieve their academic, personal and professional potential. Student achievements other than academic achievements may be recorded using the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), which is described under the subheading ‘Certification’ below.

Student assessment

Assessment procedures are decided by the individual institution. They typically involve a variety of modes of assessment, which may include examinations, essays, multiple-choice tests, reflective journals, peer assessment, portfolios, and assessment of performance and creative work.

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) provides guidance on good practice in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. The advice and guidance document on assessment provides information about the expectations and practices higher education institutions (HEIs) are required to work towards with regard to all forms of assessment used in the context of taught provision.

The QAA publication Explaining Staff Teaching Qualifications (2013) also provides an indicative list of assessment methods (Appendix 4):

  • written examination – a question or set of questions relating to a particular area of study
  • written assignment, including essay – an exercise completed in writing in the student’s own time
  • report – a description, summary or other account of an experience or activity
  • dissertation – an extended piece of written work, usually for purposes of summative assessment
  • portfolio – a compilation of coursework produced in response to specific assessment briefs
  • project outputs – the products of project work, often of a practical nature (excluding report / dissertation)
  • oral assessment / presentation – a conversation or oral presentation on a given topic
  • practical skills assessment – assessment of a student’s practical skills or competence
  • group critique – a method of receiving feedback from both tutors and peers
  • set exercises – questions or tasks designed to assess the application of knowledge or of analytical, problem-solving or evaluative skills.

External examining provides one of the principal means of maintaining nationally comparable standards within autonomous higher education institutions (HEIs). The assessment procedures include the appointment of one or more external examiners for each subject. Their role is to give an additional opinion on the performance of candidates for degrees. This ensures comparability of standards between universities, and that the examination system and the award of degree classifications is fairly operated. External examiners are usually senior members of the teaching staff of a similar department in another university. The QAA provides guidance in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

Certification

Subject to the status of their degree awarding powers (DAP), higher education institutions (HEIs) are responsible for their own awards (qualifications), the conditions on which they are awarded, and qualification titles. Guidance is provided by the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), developed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). The FHEQ includes qualification descriptors that set out the generic outcomes and attributes expected for the award of bachelor’s degrees.

Qualification titles for bachelor’s degrees include:  

  • Bachelor of Arts, abbreviated to BA   
  • Bachelor of Science, abbreviated to BSc   
  • Bachelor of Education, abbreviated to BEd. 

Institutions traditionally use the same system of classifying (i.e. grading) student attainment in programmes leading to a bachelor’s degree with honours. The honours degree classification system has four points on the scale: first class; second class, which is subdivided into upper second (2:1) and lower second (2:2); and third class. In addition, institutions may award a ‘pass’ degree, which does not carry honours, or a fail. 

Bachelor’s degrees awarded with honours may be designated as BA (Hons), BSc (Hons), etc.

Higher Education Achievement Reports

A Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) is an electronic document providing a comprehensive record of the whole of a student’s achievement during his/her time in higher education. It includes an overall summative judgement (e.g. the honours degree classification, grade point average, or other), verified by the institution. The HEAR was launched in 2008, following a recommendation in the 2007 report Beyond the Honours Degree Classification (the Burgess Group Final Report).

The HEAR builds upon the European Diploma Supplement – a document accompanying a higher education diploma, and providing a standardised description of the nature, level, context, content and status of the studies completed by its holder.

HEAR’s launch in 2008 involved 18 institutions; as of 2019, 90 universities and colleges are implementing or planning to implement the HEAR. For further information, see the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) website.

Second Cycle Programmes

Second cycle programmes involve learning at a higher, more challenging level than for a first cycle (undergraduate) programme. Second cycle qualifications at Level 7 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) include master’s degrees (such as MSc and MA) and postgraduate diplomas and certificates. The majority are taught programmes, although there are also research master’s degrees. Much of this article relates to master’s degrees, though there is also information on short programmes (graduate certificates and diplomas).

The UK funding bodies work with government and the UK research councils to develop a coordinated approach to policy, funding and participation issues in postgraduate education. From April 2018, a new body established under the provisions of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 in England, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), brings together the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and a new organisation, Research England, which will work closely with partner organisations in the devolved administrations’ research councils.

Branches of study

Master’s degrees

Master’s degrees are end-of-cycle qualifications at Level 7 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ). They are awarded after completion of taught courses or programmes of research, or a combination of both. The learning outcomes of most master’s degree courses are achieved on the basis of study equivalent to at least one full-time calendar year.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) which hold degree awarding powers are responsible for the design of their own taught and research master’s programmes, and the number of different courses offered is high.

The power to award research degrees is granted separately from powers to award first degrees.

In designing master’s degree programmes, HEIs refer to a range of statements and descriptors that form part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, maintained by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). These include:

  • The qualification descriptor for a higher education qualification at Level 7 on the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ): master’s degree. This describes the threshold academic standard for the qualification in terms of the levels of knowledge and understanding, and the types of abilities, that holders of this qualification are expected to have.
  • subject benchmark statement, describing what gives a discipline its coherence and identity, and defining what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the abilities and skills needed to develop understanding or competence in the subject. Subject benchmark statements exist for a range of master’s degrees where there is significant taught provision in a subject. Some combine or refer to professional standards required by external professional or regulatory bodies in the relevant discipline. 

In Wales, the FHEQ forms the higher education ‘pillar’ of the Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales (CQFW). The CQFW is an overarching structure designed to provide clarity on the qualifications system in Wales. It covers higher education, regulated (general and vocational) qualifications, and Quality Assured Lifelong Learning (QALL).

The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) is a framework based on the outcomes represented by the main qualification titles. It is not an integrated credit and qualifications framework, nor is its use dependent on credit. However, most higher education institutions (HEIs) in Wales use credit-based systems alongside the FHEQ. Of these, some use the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). UK credit frameworks (other than ECTS) operate according to the same underpinning principles. Master’s degree courses typically require the achievement of 180 credits. Guidance on the use of credit in the design of programmes is provided by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education; see the advice and guidance document on course design and development.

First degrees in medicine, dentistry and veterinary science comprise an integrated programme of study and professional practice spanning several levels of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ). While the final outcomes of the qualifications themselves typically meet the expectations of the descriptor for a higher education qualification at Level 7 of the FHEQ, i.e. master’s level, these qualifications often retain titles including ‘Bachelor’, for historical reasons. Examples include the titles Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (which has various abbreviations, such as MBBS or MBChB), Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS), Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine (BVetMed), or Bachelor of Veterinary Science (BVSc).

There are also integrated master’s degrees in science, engineering, pharmacy and mathematics. These comprise a programme of study spanning several FHEQ levels, where the outcomes are normally achieved through study equivalent to four full-time academic years. In such programmes, the final qualifications again meet the expectations of the qualification descriptor for Level 7 of the FHEQ in full, but the earlier stages of the programme involve study at a level that typically meets the expectations of the qualification descriptor for Level 6.

Postgraduate certificates and diplomas

Second cycle programmes also include short courses and professional ‘conversion’ courses, usually taken by those who are already graduates in another discipline. They lead, for example, to graduate certificates or graduate diplomas at Level 6 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), such as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Graduate Diploma in Psychology (GDP).

Short second cycle programmes can also include study at Level 7 of the FHEQ, i.e. at master’s level. For example, the PGCE, awarded for initial teacher training programmes, may have the full title of either the Professional Graduate Certificate in Education (at Level 6 of the FHEQ), or the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (at Level 7). Students taking the second of these two routes gain credits at master’s level that they may use towards a master’s degree.

Admission requirements

Although individual institutions set their own admission requirements for second cycle programmes, entry to many master’s degree courses requires an upper second class bachelor’s degree (2:1). Entry to postgraduate (second cycle) certificate and diploma courses, on the other hand, does not normally require a specific class of first degree. Admission to some courses is subject to students having a certain amount of related work experience.

Applications for admission are generally made direct to the institution at which the applicant wishes to study. There are also certain qualifications for which applications must be made via schemes operated by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) regardless of where the applicant wishes to study. This includes for postgraduate teacher training and master’s courses in social work and nursing.

Mature students form a substantial proportion of entrants to postgraduate education, especially to part-time postgraduate study. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) indicates that, across the UK, around two thirds of part-time postgraduate students are aged 30 or over, while only around a fifth of full-time postgraduate students are over this age. Eligibility for postgraduate student loans extends to mature master’s degree students who are aged under 60 on starting their course.

Information for candidates considering taking a master’s degree is available from a number of websites for students to visit, such as Steps to Postgraduate Study.

Curriculum

There is no national curriculum for second cycle higher education and higher education providers decide what second cycle programmes to offer.

Institutions with degree awarding powers (DAP) have the autonomy to design and develop their own programmes of study. These may be taught degree awarding powers or research degree awarding powers. In designing their programmes, institutions do, however, refer to Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) UK Quality Code for Higher Education, which includes advice and guidance on the expectations and practices providers must adhere to with regard to course design and development.

Institutions with DAP are also expected to comply with the specifications for threshold academic standards, set out in the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) for programmes at the relevant level of the framework.

The QAA also provides subject benchmark statements, which explain the level of achievement expected at master’s level, and which are intended to assist those involved in programme design, delivery and review.

Employability

Research students are encouraged to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning during and after their programme of study, and to recognise the value of developing transferable skills.

In its productivity plan, Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation, published in July 2015, the UK Government stated its intention to support universities in collaborating with industry and commercialising research.

Improving the employability of graduates in Wales is a key theme for the Welsh Government, which in March 2018 introduced a new Employability Plan. For further information on this and Welsh Government strategies with regard to employability.

Apprenticeships

The development of degree apprenticeships at Level 6 and Level 7 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ) is a priority in Wales. This is reflected in the 2019/20 annual remit letter from the Welsh Government to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW). The aims are to widen access to the professions and to develop the higher level technical skills needed to improve productivity and support businesses to compete internationally.

Degree apprenticeships involve employers, universities and relevant professional bodies co-designing apprenticeships which meet full occupational competency and include a degree (bachelor’s or master’s). Information on the range of degree apprenticeships is available on the Careers Wales website.

Student assessment

Assessment procedures are decided by the individual institution and typically involve a range of methods.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) provides guidance on the assessment of taught modules and programmes in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. 

Assessment for research qualifications is different from that for taught awards, and assessment for a master’s degree by research will usually include some kind of oral examination. Guidelines on the assessment of research students can be found in the Quality Code advice and guidance document on research degrees.

External examining provides one of the principal means of maintaining nationally comparable standards within autonomous higher education institutions (HEIs). Assessment procedures include the appointment of one or more external examiners for each subject. Their role is to give an additional opinion on the performance of candidates for degrees and consequently ensure comparability of standards between universities. External examiners are usually senior members of the teaching staff of a similar department in another HEI.

Certification

Subject to the status of their degree awarding powers (DAP)higher education institutions (HEIs) are responsible for their own awards and qualifications, the conditions on which they are awarded, and qualification titles. 

Guidance is provided by the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), developed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). Qualification descriptors set out the generic outcomes and attributes expected for the award of each type of qualification. They describe the threshold academic standard for those qualification types in terms of the levels of knowledge and understanding, and the types of abilities, that holders of the relevant qualification are expected to have. On successful completion of a master’s degree, the grades awarded are generally distinction, merit and pass.

Master of Arts (MA) courses are normally in arts, social sciences, business or humanities subjects. A Master of Science (MSc) is awarded for science and social science courses. Other taught master’s courses include the Master of Business Administration (MBA) and the Master of Education (MEd). There are also Master of Research (MRes) courses in science and social sciences subjects, which combine broad training in research methods with a research project. Longer master’s courses that typically involve a more substantial element of research or equivalent enquiry often lead to the degree of ‘Master of Philosophy’ (MPhil). 

Third Cycle (PhD) Programmes

Doctoral degrees are at Level 8 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ).

The UK funding bodies work with government and the UK research councils to develop a coordinated approach to policy, funding and participation issues in postgraduate education. From April 2018, a new body established under the provisions of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 in England, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), brings together the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and a new organisation, Research England, which will work closely with partner organisations in the devolved administrations’ research councils.

Organisation of doctoral studies

The degree of Doctor of Philosophy, abbreviated to PhD (or DPhil in some universities), is awarded for the creation and interpretation of new knowledge, or application of existing knowledge in a new way, at the forefront of an academic discipline (e.g. in arts, social sciences, business, humanities or science subjects). This is usually through original research. 

All doctoral degrees are expected to meet the generic statement of outcomes set out in the qualification descriptor for doctoral degrees in the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ). The qualification descriptor sets out broad expected outcomes for a doctoral degree in terms of what graduates should be able to demonstrate, and the wider abilities that they would be expected to have developed.

In Wales, the FHEQ forms the higher education ‘pillar’ of the Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales (CQFW). The CQFW is an overarching structure designed to provide clarity on the qualifications system in Wales. It covers higher education, regulated (general and vocational) qualifications, and Quality Assured Lifelong Learning (QALL).

Doctoral programmes generally take three to four years full-time or five to seven years part-time to complete. They are not typically credit-rated.

The majority of doctoral degrees are taken at universities and other higher education institutions (HEIs). However, there are some opportunities for studying in government laboratories, hospital laboratories and research institutions – in partnership with a university.

Alternative routes to PhD

The ‘New Route PhD’ or integrated PhD involves studying a one-year research master’s degree followed by a three-year PhD. It combines research with a structured programme of training in research methods and transferable professional skills.

The professional doctorate includes a significant taught component and a smaller research project. It is often taken on a part-time basis and can last anywhere between two and eight years. This type of doctorate is primarily aimed at professionals in vocational sectors such as healthcare, teaching and education, and engineering and manufacturing. Their research is expected to contribute to theory as well as professional practice.

Academics with a substantial body of experience, but no PhD, may apply for a ‘PhD by publication’. This involves submitting previously published work (e.g. books, book chapters, and journal articles, that together form a coherent body of work and show evidence of an original contribution to a particular field of study), together with a supporting statement.

PhDs by distance learning are offered by an increasing number of HEIs and may be taken full- or part-time.

The graduate careers website Prospects provides further information on these routes.

Admission requirements

Higher education institutions (HEIs) set their own admission requirements. Guidelines on the selection, admission and induction of students are available from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) UK Quality Code for Higher Education in the advice and guidance document on research degrees.

For doctoral research, applicants would normally be expected to have at least one of:  

  • an undergraduate degree with honours (usually class 2:1 or above) in a relevant subject  
  • a relevant master’s qualification, or equivalent evidence of prior professional practice or learning that meets the higher education provider’s criteria and guidelines for the accreditation of prior learning (APL); this may include, for example, the required amount of prior publications or other output specified for applicants for the award of PhD by publication. 

Information for candidates considering applying for a third cycle programme is available from the Vitae website. Vitae is a national organisation that supports the professional development of researchers.

Status of doctoral students/candidates

Doctoral students may have the status of students, or may hold an employment contract with their higher education institution (HEI). Traditional supervision-based (student) doctorates are the more widespread.

Supervision arrangements

Supervision arrangements are determined by individual higher education institutions (HEIs). Guidelines are provided by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) in the advice and guidance document on research degrees, which forms part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

Employability

Research students are encouraged to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning during and after their programme of study, and to recognise the value of developing transferable skills. The advice and guidance document on research degrees, which is part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, provides guidance on the support that should be offered to research postgraduate students to develop employability skills.

In March 2017, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) published Innovation Nation, a collection of case studies highlighting the innovation activities undertaken by Welsh higher education institutions (HEIs), with partners in the private, public and voluntary (third) sectors. The case studies, which focus on the themes of creating and safeguarding jobs, attracting investment, skills and work-based learning, and collaborative projects, indicate the value of these activities to the Welsh economy. A second collection of case studies, Innovation Nation: On common ground, was published in June 2018. Its focus was the impact HEIs have on local, national and international communities.

In its productivity plan, Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation, published in July 2015, the UK Government stated its intention to support universities in collaborating with industry and commercialising research.

Improving the employability of graduates in Wales is a key theme for the Welsh Government, which, in March 2018, introduced a new Employability Plan. This is described in the corresponding subheading of the article ‘Bachelor’.

Assessment

Assessment procedures for research qualifications are different from those for taught awards and usually include some kind of oral examination. Doctoral candidates are examined on the basis of an appropriate body of work and an oral examination (viva voce), in which they defend their thesis to a panel of academics who are experts in the field.

External examining provides one of the principal means of maintaining nationally comparable standards within autonomous higher education institutions (HEIs). The assessment procedures include the appointment of one or more external examiners for each subject. Their role is to give an additional opinion on the performance of candidates for degrees. This aims to ensure comparability of standards between universities, and that the examinations system and the award of degree classifications are fairly operated. External examiners are usually senior members of the teaching staff of a similar department in another university.

The advice and guidance document on research degrees provided by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) as part of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education provides guidance on assessment and external examining.

Certification

Subject to the status of their degree awarding powers, higher education institutions (HEIs) are responsible for their own awards, the conditions on which they are awarded, and qualification titles. 

Guidance is provided by the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), alongside qualification descriptors which set out the generic outcomes and attributes expected for the award of doctoral degrees (page 30).  

Qualification titles for doctoral degrees include:

  • Doctor of Philosophy, abbreviated to PhD or DPhil   
  • Doctor of Education, abbreviated to EdD   
  • Doctor of Clinical Psychology, abbreviated to DClinPsy   
  • Doctor of Engineering, abbreviated to EngD or DEng   
  • Doctor of Business Administration, abbreviated to DBA. 

Honorary doctorates are not academic qualifications.

Organisational variation

Open and distance learning is also available. The Open University, for example, which specialises in ‘supported open learning’, offers doctoral programmes. PhD qualifications taken through the Open University involve a four-year period of full-time study, or a maximum of six years part-time.

Higher doctorates may be awarded in recognition of a substantial body of original research undertaken over the course of many years. Typically, a portfolio of work that has been previously published in a peer-refereed context is submitted for assessment. Most higher education awarding bodies restrict candidacy to graduates or academic staff of several years’ standing.

Mobility in Higher Education

Strategies and actions may be cross-sectoral, so this article should be read in conjunction with the ‘Introduction: Mobility and Internationalisation’.

Student mobility 

Global Wales Discover, which is run by British Council Wales and funded by the Welsh Government and Global Wales, provides funding for Welsh universities to deliver short-term mobility opportunities for Welsh undergraduates. Students can spend beyween two and eight weeks studying, working or volunteering in an EU member state, the USA, Canada, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, India, China or Vietnam.

In May 2019, the Welsh Government and Universities Wales, which represents the interests of Welsh universities, announced new partnerships with the Fulbright and Gilman international scholarship programmes. The agreements will fund the mobility of students and researchers between Wales and the United States, with the aim of developing long-term educational links. They aim to build on existing established links between Welsh and US universities, such as through Seren, the network which supports Welsh secondary school students to apply for and attend some of the top universities in the world, including Harvard and Yale in the US. 

Information on mobility opportunities for UK students in higher education, including the opportunities available under the European Union Erasmus+ programme for education, training, youth and sport, is provided in the article on ‘Mobility in Higher Education’ for England.

Academic staff mobility 

Information on mobility opportunities for academic staff in UK higher education, including the opportunities available under the European Union Erasmus+ programme for education, training, youth and sport, is provided in the article on ‘Mobility in Higher Education’ for England.

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European Higher Education Organization is a public organization carrying out academic, educational and information activities on higher education in Europe.

The EHEO general plan stresses that:

  • Higher education systems require adequate funding and, as an investment in economic growth, public spending in higher education should be protected.
  • The challenges faced by higher education require more flexible governance and funding systems, which balance greater autonomy for education institutions with accountability to stakeholders.

Thus, EHEO plans:

  • improve academic and scientific interaction of universities;
  • protect the interests of universities;
  • interact more closely with public authorities of European countries;
  • popularize European higher education in the world;
  • develop academic mobility;
  • seek funding for European universities.