What is a degree?

  • Emma Finamore
  • Last updated 09 Jan 2020

A quick overview for school leavers asking themselves: What is a degree?


A degree is an academic course and qualification studied for and attained at university – a bachelor's degree or master's degree. For school leavers, the most relevant degree to be aware of is the bachelor’s degree, which can be taken in hundreds of subjects, ranging from traditional academic ones such as history, English literature and geography, to the sciences, to newer subjects like digital and social media.

Depending on the subject, degrees combine contact time (lectures and seminars, or laboratory time for sciences) with course work and exams. This can range from just a few hours of contact time a week for, say, an English Literature undergraduate, to 45 hours a week for a chemistry student, who might work full-time hours in the university laboratory.

The degree classifications are:

·       First-class honours (often called a 1st)

·       Second-class honours, upper division (often called a 2:1)

·       Second-class honours, lower division (often called a 2:2)

·       Third-class honours (often called a 3rd)

·       Ordinary degree (often called a pass)

There are slight variations on degrees in the UK: at English universities, a standard honours degree requires three years of study, while at Scottish universities, a standard honours degree requires four years of study. Although the total time graduates of both systems spend in primary, secondary and higher education is usually the same, typical English graduates spend one year more at secondary school and one year less at university than Scottish graduates.

Most degrees require applicants to hold A-levels (or the equivalent in Scotland – Scottish Highers), and allow graduates to access quality jobs, although with the rise in tuition fees and growing popularity of alternatives to university, this is beginning to change. 

Unlike education up until the age of 18, not all university degrees are free; in fact, most school leavers wanting to do degrees will have to pay for them. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland students do have to pay for their degrees, at varying prices. Most school leavers take out a student loan to cover these, which they pay off over a number of years, at a rate linked to their income.

 In Scotland, your first degree is free (usually a bachelor’s) and you only have to pay fees if you do a post-graduate degree, or master’s, afterwards.


Image courtesy of Faustin Tuyambaze

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