Last updated in 2020
Chapter 1: Higher Education System
Section 1.1.: Schematic Description of the Higher Education System
Section 1.2: Description of Higher Education System
The three cycles of higher education degree culminate in a Bachelor degree, Master’s degree and Doctorate, respectively.
Bachelor degrees are typically three or four years in duration. They may be Ordinary or Honours degrees, though Ordinary degrees are now rarely awarded outside of Scotland. Bachelor degrees are usually associated with 360-480 UK credits or 180-240 ECTS credits. Some Scottish universities may also confer an award known as a Master of Arts, which, despite the title, constitutes an undergraduate degree.
Master’s degrees are usually one to two years in duration. They are required to comprise a minimum of 120 UK credits / 60 ECTS credits, though most second-cycle degrees represent at least 180 UK credits / 90 ECTS credits.
Doctorates typically require three years’ study / research, but do not tend to be credit-rated. Professional doctorates may, however, relate to a minimum of 540 UK credits, corresponding to 270 ECTS credits.
Many other awards feature on the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ), but are less commonly awarded.
The Certificate of Higher Education and Higher National Certificate typically correspond to one year of undergraduate study in academic or vocational fields, respectively.
The Diploma of Higher Education, Foundation degree and Higher National Diploma broadly equate to two years of undergraduate study. While the former has an academic focus, the Foundation degree and Higher National Diploma are more vocationally orientated.
The Graduate Certificate and Graduate Diploma are Bachelor level awards, and are typically up to one year in duration. They are usually pursued by those who already hold a Bachelor degree in one area and wish to retrain in a different field.
Postgraduate Certificates and Postgraduate Diplomas are Master’s level awards; the former typically represents one-third of a Master’s degree, while the latter would generally represent two-thirds of a Master’s degree.
Integrated Master’s degrees represent a minimum of four years’ combined undergraduate and postgraduate study. At least one academic year must be dedicated to Master’s level study.
Recognised Bodies and Listed Bodies
Higher education institutions include Recognised Bodies and Listed Bodies. A Recognised Body is an institution which can offer programmes leading towards a recognised UK degree and confer the final degree. A Listed Body, on the other hand, is an institution which can offer a programme leading towards a recognised UK degree, but which cannot confer the final degree. A Listed Body must cooperate with a Recognised Body; only the Recognised Body may issue the final certificate.
Section 1.3: Number of Higher Education Institutions
The Department for Education (DfE) includes 178 Recognised Bodies and 680 Listed Bodies in its official listing in October 2018.
It should, however, be noted that the responsibility for publishing these lists will shortly be transferred to the Office for Students (OfS).
Section 1.4 Number of Students in Higher Education
According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), there were 1,766,285 undergraduate students and 551,595 postgraduate students in the UK during the 2016-17 academic year.
There is no clear data on the number of students enrolled directly with a Recognised Body and those studying for a higher education programme at a Listed Body.
According to HESA, there were 442,350 overseas-domiciled students enrolled in UK higher education during the 2016-17 academic year.
Data regarding exchange students with credit transfer was not publicly available.
Section 1.5: Structure of Academic Year
The structure of the academic year is not regulated by law, though the academic year tends to run from August to July. The teaching year typically runs from September or October until May or June.
The academic year is typically divided into two semesters and thus examinations may be sat in both the winter and summer.
The period of study for postgraduate programmes will vary. Master’s degree students will often study for a full calendar year, for example October to October.
Section 1.6: National Qualifications Framework (or Similar)
Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) and Framework for Qualifications of Higher Education Institutions in Scotland (FQHEIS)
These frameworks apply to all qualifications awarded by UK degree-awarding bodies. Both frameworks are maintained, reviewed and developed by the QAA.
|Doctoral degree (e.g. PhD/DPhil, EdD, DBA)
|Third cycle (end of cycle)
|Master’s degree (e.g. MA, MSc, MPhil)
|Second cycle (end of cycle)
|Integrated Master’s degree (e.g. MEng, MPharm)
|Primary qualification (or degree) in medicine, dentistry and veterinary science (e.g. MB BS, BDS, BVSc)
|Postgraduate Certificate / Diploma in Education (PGCE/PGDE)
|Bachelor degree with Honours (e.g. BA/BSc Hons)
|First cycle (end of cycle)
|Professional Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE)
|Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE)
|Short cycle (within / linked to first cycle)
|Higher National Diploma (HND)
|Foundation degree (e.g. FdA, FdSc)
|Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE)
|Higher National Certificate (HNC)
1 The levels of the FHEQ are numbered 4-8, following on from levels 1-3 in the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) and the Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales (CQFW)
2 Scottish Qualifications and Credit Framework (SCQF) level, as FQHEIS is nested within the SCQF.
3 Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area
Section 1.7: Learning Outcomes in Higher Education
The UK frameworks use qualification descriptors to exemplify the general nature and outcomes of the main type of qualification at each level.
The first part of each descriptor is a statement of outcomes which a student should be able to demonstrate for the award of the qualification. Degree-awarding bodies use these when designing, approving, assessing and reviewing programmes to ensure that the learning opportunities and assessment within the programme enable students to achieve and demonstrate achievement of the learning outcomes.
The QAA also publishes Subject Benchmark Statements which describe the nature of study and academic standards expected of Bachelor Honours degree and Master’s degree graduates in specific subject areas. The Statements provide guidance to be used in the design, delivery and review of academic programmes.
Section 1.8: Admission Requirements to Higher Education
UK universities are autonomous and set their own admission requirements. As such, there is no national legislation covering international student admissions.
The UK Quality Code for Higher Education sets out the following expectation about recruitment, selection and admission to higher education, which providers are required to meet:
- Recruitment, selection, and admission policies and procedures adhere to the principles of fair admission. They are transparent, reliable, valid, inclusive and underpinned by appropriate organisational structures and processes. They support higher education providers in the selection of students who are able to complete their programme.
Undergraduate admissions are handled by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which oversees the admissions process and provides information to students on entry requirements for specific programmes. Prospective UK and most international students apply through UCAS. Grades achieved in different qualifications (including a small number of international awards) are converted to a numerical points score, using a system known as the UCAS Tariff. Entry requirements may be expressed in terms of UCAS Tariff points, but many providers specify qualifications, subjects and grades.
Postgraduate admissions are handled by individual higher education providers.
Section 1.9: Grading System
Bachelor (Honours) degree
Bachelor degrees with Honours are classified as follows (in descending order of rank):
- Class I (First)
- Class II Division I (Upper second)
- Class II Division II (Lower second)
- Class III (Third)
Individual courses are usually graded on a percentage scale, with a pass mark of 40%. Grading systems may vary between institutions.
Master’s degrees are awarded with Distinction, Merit or Pass. Individual courses are usually graded on a percentage scale, often with a pass mark of 50%. Grading systems may vary between institutions.
Doctorates are not given a classification or a grade.
Section 1.10: Tuition Fee System for International Students
Publically-funded higher education institutions charge two tuition fee rates: one for ‘home’ students and one for ‘overseas’ students. Fees for international students vary depending on the institution and programme studied. In 2017, ‘overseas’ fees for Bachelor degree programmes were generally between £10,000 and £35,000 per year.
Students from within the EU currently pay the ‘home’ rate, which, at undergraduate level, is capped at £9,250 per year in England, £9,000 in Wales and £4,030 in Northern Ireland (2018). There are no fees for ‘home’ undergraduate students in Scotland. EU students are also eligible for the same financial support (tuition fee and maintenance loans) as UK students. It has been confirmed that this will continue until 2019/20.
Private higher education institutions, which do not receive public funding, set their own tuition fee levels for both ‘home’ and ‘overseas’ students.
Section 1.11: Graduation Requirements and/or Qualification Awarding Requirements
Degree-awarding bodies are responsible for ensuring that student performance is assessed against defined standards and qualifications are only awarded when the relevant learning outcomes have been achieved.
The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) uses credits to quantify learning outcomes. Many higher education institutions in the rest of the UK use the national Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS). In both systems, one credit is equal to 10 hours of learning time.
The following credit values are associated with higher education qualifications:
Minimum total credits(CATS / SCQF)
Minimum credits at the FHEQ/SCQF level of the qualification
Not typically credit rated
Professional doctorate(e.g. EdD, DBA)
360 / 420
Research Master’s degree(e.g. MPhil, MLitt)
Not typically credit rated
Taught Master’s degree(e.g. MA, MSc)
Integrated Master’s degree
(e.g. MEng, MPharm)
Bachelor degree with Honours
(e.g. BA/BSc Hons)
360 / 480
300 / 360
80 / 120
40 / 60
Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE)
Higher National Diploma (HND)
Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE)
Higher National Certificate (HNC)
The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) may also be used. One ECTS credit is equal to two CATS / SCQF points.
Section 1.12: Relevant Current and Prospective Reforms in Higher Education
Office for Students
The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 established the Office for Students (OfS) as the new independent higher education regulator in England, replacing the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The OfS operates in line with the Regulatory Framework for Higher Education in England. Its remit includes ensuring equality of opportunity and safeguarding standards.
The OfS have assumed responsibility for the Recognised and Listed Bodies listing from the DfE and will be publishing their own list later in 2018.
The OfS also distributes government higher education funding to more than 300 providers in England. Annual funding that supports research is now the responsibility of Research England.
Applications for degree-awarding powers received from English institutions after 1st April 2018 are processed by the OfS. The OfS will thus confer future degree-awarding powers in England, superseding the Privy Council.
Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework
The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) was introduced by the government in England in 2017. It assesses teaching, learning and students outcomes upon graduation. Institutions may then receive a gold, silver or bronze award. Participation is currently voluntary, but universities and colleges in England that are registered with the Office for Students will have to take part in the TEF in future. Publicly funded providers holding a TEF in England may charge the higher maximum tuition fee for 2018 entrants (£9,250 per year).
There has been some discussion about the possibility of introducing a GPA grading system in UK higher education. If introduced, this may replace, or simply supplement, the existing degree classification system. Work in this area has been conducted by the Burgess Implementation Steering Group and the Higher Education Academy.
Chapter 2: Quality Assurance in Higher Education
Section 2.1: Quality Assurance Body in Higher Education
Regulation of higher education is an area of devolved responsibility in the UK, so England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each have different regulatory bodies and frameworks.
The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) performs quality and standards assessment functions to support the regulatory process across the UK.
The QAA, established in 1997, is responsible for:
- Setting and monitoring the standards of UK higher education, including the development of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education;
- Providing advice and support about quality and standards to higher education institutions, organisations and governments;
- Advising the UK government on applications for degree-awarding powers and the right to be called a university;
- Reviewing UK higher education wherever it is delivered and publishing reports to disseminate findings;
- Providing training and guidance to help higher education providers develop and improve their own quality assurance processes.
Section 2.2: Quality Assurance System
The situation is somewhat fluid and depends on the constituent part of the UK in question.
In Scotland and Wales, publicly funded institutions must undergo a cyclical quality assurance review.
In England and Northern Ireland, established providers are not presently subject to a cyclical quality assurance review, though new institutions are required to undergo a review.
As an example, The Quality and Enhancement Review (QER) in Wales is conducted every six years. The Enhancement-Led Institutional Review (ELIR) in Scotland is conducted every five years.
|QAA reviews are primarily focused on the institution as a whole. Programmatic accreditation does not exist per se.
|The UK Quality Code for Higher Education indicates that degree-awarding bodies should monitor and review their own programmes.A self-evaluation report may form part of the process of the QAA institutional review.
- In Scotland, the Enhancement-led Institutional Review (ELIR) is compulsory for all HEIs funded by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).
- In Wales, ‘regulated’ providers must undergo an external quality review, currently known as Quality and Enhancement Review (QER). Providers wishing to enter the regulated sector may undergo a new review process: Gateway Quality Review Wales.
- In Northern Ireland, established institutions are not required to undergo an external cyclical quality review, but new providers seeking funding were required to undergo a Quality Review Visit.
- In England, established providers which have been admitted to the OfS register will not be required to undergo cyclical reviews, but may be subject to enhanced monitoring and or be selected through a random sampling process to undergo a full review. Providers applying to the register for the first time will be subject to a Quality and Standards Review.
- Alternative (private) providers of higher education and institutions offering osteopathic courses are similarly subject to their own distinct review processes.
Section 2.3: Link Programme Authorisation with Quality Assurance
The QAA conducts a variety of different types of review at institutional level, depending on provider type and location within the UK. There is no separate system for programme authorisation or accreditation.
Qualifications awarded by a degree-awarding body whose academic standards and quality are assured by the QAA are entitled to claim that their qualifications are assigned to a level of the UK frameworks for higher education qualifications. All qualifications awarded by these institutions are nationally recognised.
There is no list of all recognised / accredited programmes in the UK.
List of Recognised Bodies: https://www.gov.uk/check-a-university-is-officially-recognised/recognised-bodies 1
Recognised Bodies are higher education providers with degree-awarding powers.
List of Listed Bodies:
Listed Bodies are providers without their own degree-awarding powers, which deliver programmes leading to degrees awarded by Recognised Bodies.
1 No longer updated. From April 2018, the newly established independent regulatory body for England, the Office for Students (OfS), assumed responsibility for the Listed and Recognised Bodies (England) orders. As part of its remit, the OfS maintains the OfS Register of all registered providers. Providers are currently being registered before the new Regulatory Framework for higher education in England comes into full effect on 31 July 2019. Transitional regulatory arrangements are in place until then. Arrangements for the listings for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are still to be confirmed.
Chapter 3: Credit System in Higher Education
Section 3.1: Description of Credit System
There is no nationally operated credit transfer system in the UK or a body with overarching responsibility for credit recognition and transfer opportunities.
Across the UK, the national Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS) is used by many higher education institutions, most prominently by the Open University (OU).
In Scotland, credit is incorporated into the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). A qualification/learning programme must be capable of being allocated an SCQF level and SCQF credit points in order that it can be included on the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework.
The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System is also widely referred to by UK Higher Education institutions in transcripts where the European Diploma Supplement or Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) is produced.
Section 3.2: Credit Transfer System(s)
- ECTS – European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System
- Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework
- Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme
Section 3.3: Additional Information
Section 3.4: Application of Credit System in Higher Education Institutions Obligatory?
No. There is no mandatory credit transfer system in the UK or a body with overarching responsibility for credit recognition and transfer opportunities.
Each higher education awarding body determines what credit it will accept for purposes of accumulation or transfer in relation to its individual programmes.
Section 3.5: Number of Credits per Academic Year/Semester
The number of credits per standard academic year depends upon the system being used:
- CATS: There are 120 CATS points per standard academic year.
- SCQF: 120 credits per standard academic year.
- ECTS: There are 60 ECTS per standard academic year (30 ECTS/semester).
Section 3.6: Number of Credits per Higher Education Cycle
The number of credits per higher education cycle varies, but there are credit values typically associated with programmes leading to particular qualifications:
- CATS: Bachelor (Honours) degrees are typically 360 points. There is some flexibility in the combination of credit points required for the final award, but a Bachelor (Honours) degree usually requires 120 points at FHEQ (Framework for Higher Education Qualifications) level 4, 120 points at FHEQ level 5 and 120 points at FHEQ level 6. Master’s degrees are a minimum of 150 CATS points.
- SCQF: Bachelor (Honours) degree requires 480 credits (SCQF level 10). Master’s degree (taught) is 180 credits (SCQF level 11).
- ECTS: Most Bachelor programmes (FHEQ level 6) are 180 credits. The number of credits for a Master programme (FHEQ level 7) is minimum 60 credits and ranges between 60 and 120 credits.
CATS: Credits are not generally used for PhD programmes. Professional doctorates are a minimum of 540 points, with at least 360 points at FHEQ level 8.
SCQF: Credits are not generally used for PhD programmes. Professional doctorates are a minimum of 540 credits with at least 420 credits at SCQF level 12.
Section 3.7: Description of Credit Unit
- CATS equates one credit (or credit point) with 10 hours of notional learning time (the time, on average, a learner takes to achieve the specified learning outcomes). For instance, a module may be allocated 30 credits or ‘CATS points’, which should require students to commit approximately 300 hours of work to achieving the learning outcomes for the module at a particular level.
- 1 SCQF credit point is equivalent to at least 10 notional learning hours. This reflects the time spent on all activities that contribute to the achievement of the learning outcomes of the programme and includes those that take place before and after delivery as well as the actual delivery itself. Only full SCQF credit points are awarded – fractions of SCQF credit points (e.g. 0.5) are not allowed.
- 1 ECTS credit equals 25-30 hours of student workload. As per the ECTS definition, workload is an estimation of the time the individual typically needs to complete all learning activities such as lectures, seminars, projects, practical work, work placements and individual study required to achieve the defined learning outcomes in formal learning environments.
Section 3.8: Link between Learning Outcomes and Credits
In the UK, learning outcomes and credits are intrinsically linked. For instance:
- CATS: A quantified means of expressing and measuring learning equivalence, awarded for the demonstrable achievement of learning outcomes.
- SCQF: Credit Points quantify learning outcomes that are subject to valid, reliable methods of assessment.
- ECTS: A student is awarded credits upon achievement of the defined learning outcomes related to the educational unit/course.