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The HE system: study programmes

Read this article to find out more about the UK higher education system and the study programmes available.
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© British Council

Undergraduate degrees

After leaving school, most students going to university study for an undergraduate or first degree. A degree course is usually made up of modules (some compulsory, some optional) that add up to a full degree, called a bachelor’s degree.

There are other options too. Foundation degrees and diplomas are shorter courses and designed to develop your skills and subject-specific knowledge before you move into a full degree-level course.

A bachelor’s degree usually requires three years of study in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; in Scotland courses generally take four years. For some subjects, such as medicine, courses are longer.

For a bachelor’s degree, you can concentrate on a single subject, combine two subjects (joint honours) or choose several subjects (combined honours).


Depending on your course, and after your final examinations (finals), you’ll receive a bachelor’s degree, for example Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BSc), Bachelor of Engineering, Bachelor of Education (BEd), Bachelor of Law (LLB), Bachelor of Medicine (MB). The abbreviations are often used – you’ll hear people saying things like ‘I have a BA in History.’

Post-graduate degrees

If you already have a first degree, you might be thinking of studying for a master’s degree (MA, MSc, LLM, etc.). A doctorate – the best known one is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) – is awarded in many different fields from the arts and humanities to the science disciplines. You can think of these as a ‘second’ degree and a ‘final’ degree respectively.

A master’s degree takes between one and two years; a doctorate will much take longer. In general, a master’s is more career-orientated, while a doctorate is for people preparing for research-orientated careers or in academia.

This PDF will provide you with additional information about the higher education system in the UK.

A lecturer with 2 students standing around a dressmakers mannequin draping fabric

Teaching methods

Teaching methods vary depending on the course and the university you choose, but most will include some or all of the following.

  • Lectures: these are large classes, often in a lecture theatre, usually lasting for about an hour. A lecturer or tutor will guide you through the subject and introduce you to new concepts and theories.

  • Seminars and tutorials: in these small classes, tutors encourage you to debate and discuss a specific topic or piece of work. Tutorials give you the chance to ask questions and receive feedback.

  • Practical work: many courses offer practical classes where students do experiments; tackle problem-solving exercises; carry out survey and project work and get first-hand experience of how the theory and principles of their discipline are applied.

  • Workplace training: some courses will give you practical experience within a working environment under the supervision of experienced staff. These are sometimes called ‘sandwich’ courses because students have a placement in the workplace in between their university studies, like the filling in a sandwich.

  • Independent study: in addition to these teaching methods, you’ll be expected to conduct your own independent study and research.

Are you familiar with all of these teaching methods? Share your comments below. Don’t worry if some of them are new to you, you’ll hear more about these methods later in the course.

© British Council
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