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Things to know about degrees

Course structure

Each university has its own language to describe its degree courses but there are commonly-used terms to label the very real differences in structure (eg single subject, multidisciplinary) and approach (theoretical, vocational). If you are not totally sure what you want to study for the next three or four years, and may want to change direction, choose a course that is flexible and will allow you to change emphasis as your interests develop. Courses are in general becoming more flexible but it does make their labels harder to define. Here are a few.

Single subject degrees: One subject is studied for the length of the course, although a wide variety of topics within the subject may be covered and the first year may be broad.

Joint Honours degrees: Two subjects are taken equally (but less of each, so you don't do twice as much work).

Combined (multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary) courses: Components from any number of subjects can be put together.

Modular (or unit) schemes: The information taught is parcelled up into discrete units (modules or course units). Students structure their own degrees from a range of units or modules, within the constraints laid down for the particular course. This can allow you to study unconventional combinations of subjects, or add some IT or a language - while still finishing with a degree that makes sense to employers. It is not total anarchy: there will be specified units you will need to take if you want, eg professional qualifications or a named degree (eg BSc in Physics). This is an increasingly common structure but almost all non-modular courses offer some choice.

Theoretical courses: What it says - specialist study without immediate application.

Vocational courses: The degree is directly linked to work applications and will usually include some work experience.

Sandwich courses: Part of the course is spent in a work placement - in professional or industrial training or work − usually paid; sometimes this can be overseas. These courses are usually a year longer than the non-sandwich equivalent. There are 'thick' sandwiches (a year out) and 'thin' sandwiches (usually two periods of six months).

Foundation degrees: A two-year course, with a strong bias towards work-based learning. It should give credit to the first two years of an Honours degree, although you may need to take an extra term or a summer school before joining the third year.

Intercalated courses: Where students on a first degree course (usually medicine, dentistry or veterinary medicine) interrupt their studies to complete a one-year course of study in another subject, usually to Honours standard, and then return to their original course.

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Length of course

In general, an Honours degree course takes three years, a year longer in Scotland. But there are many exceptions.

Many first degree courses last four years - notably if you spend a year abroad or in a work placement, if you get an additional qualification (eg QTS or undergraduate Masters) or it includes a foundation year. If you are studying architecture, medicine or veterinary medicine your course will normally last five or more years. Foundation degrees last two years and so do a few accelerated degree courses (typically 45 weeks a year).

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The final degree

Bachelor (or Masters) degrees: Most first degrees lead to the award of a Bachelor degree - so when you graduate, you can put BA, BSc, BEd or LLB after your name (and there are some modern mouthfuls, BSocSci, BPhysChem; the list grows longer each year). But some first degrees lead to Masters, notably in the older Scottish universities (where many first degrees lead to an MA) and some science degrees (which take 4 years and qualify you for, eg MEng, MMath). For the most part, Masters are higher degrees involving further study; but then some Bachelor degrees (eg BPhil) are higher degrees. All rather confusing. Medics usually take five years and get MBBS or MBChB (Bachelor in medicine and surgery, in different languages).

Honours or ordinary degrees: Most degrees are now Honours degrees. These are differentiated by classes, depending on how well you have done. You can get a first-class degree (also called just 'a First'), upper second class (sometimes known as a 2:1), lower second (or 2:2) or a third. Do not believe that a first-class degree from one university necessarily equals a first from another; whatever they say, it does not.

Ordinary degrees (sometimes called a pass degree) may be awarded if a student fails to achieve Honours standard or where the course does not provide for Honours (eg some Open University courses and at some Scottish universities). You can usually top up an Ordinary degree to Honours, with a further year's study.

Whose degree? In the vast majority of cases your degree will be awarded by the university (or university college) you attend. But many colleges do not award their own degrees, in which case your degree will be from the university that validates your course. So if you study at, eg Rose Bruford College, you will get a degree from Manchester University.

Degree certificates: All this will be recorded on your degree certificate, eg Bachelor of Arts, with First Class Honours from the University of Woking. It might also add the subject(s) you studied. You may also get a transcript, which logs your achievements in the different elements of your degree (the marks for each paper/module/unit). Transcripts are useful evidence of what you have done, either to back up your claims to specialist studies or to explain away your final class of degree.

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External degrees and distance learning

External degrees are offered to students who study away from the university, usually in their own time. It is related to distance learning, where students also study at home.

External degrees are still in demand, particularly from overseas. The majority of external students are studying for the wide range of external degrees offered by London University. No formal tuition is provided by the university (though it may be provided locally) and there is a range of learning materials, short courses, informal tutorial assessments and reading lists from which students may pick and choose. Undergraduate programmes are a minimum of three years but external students usually take longer and registration is valid for eight years. External students set their own pace and can sit their London University exams in most countries in the world.

Distance learning was pioneered by the Open University (OU), founded 40 years ago. The OU developed sophisticated course materials to allow mature students to study at home. Many other universities now have distance-learning options on degree courses, of variable quality. These are essentially part-time courses where you do not have to attend the university.

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Local routes to a degree

Some first degree courses can be taken locally, either completely or in part. Sometimes you can study for a year or two at your local FE college (and may qualify for a Foundation degree) and then take your final year or two at the university that awards the degree. There are very many permutations and possibilities. Ask your local FE college.

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Bogus degrees

These may be offered by post or, increasingly, by spam email; international students can be targeted in particular. Sometimes they are for sale, sometimes a thesis is required, sometimes they are awarded for work experience. There is seldom any course of instruction. No uni featured on this website offers or accepts such degrees but there seems to be a real demand for them.

It is a criminal offence to award or seek to offer a UK degree without express government authority; if in doubt, you can check the list of all recognised degrees and degree-awarding institutions at www.bis.gov.uk/recognisedukdegrees. There is no constraint on offering UK certificates or diplomas, or bogus degrees from overseas as long as it is clear that they are not UK-approved courses.

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