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The UK Higher Education System

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier


In the UK, a degree-level qualification can only be awarded by permission from the Secretary of State, a Royal Charter or an Act of Parliament. This helps you to identify the list of recognised institutions. Universities and some colleges can award degree-level qualifications but if you are looking to pursue a Masters or a PhD, you are more likely to study at a university. There are exceptions such as arts colleges and business schools, some being autonomous, whilst others are constituents of universities.

There are two types of 'accreditations', institution-level and qualification-level, often dealt with by completely different organisations. For example, for a recognised university to be able to award a medical degree or a teacher’s qualification, it will need the appropriate professional body accreditation. In any case, all bodies that award UK degrees are subject to a regular external quality assurance reviews by the Quality Assurance Agency UK (QAA).


Postgraduate degrees are of four main types: taught masters (called Masters by Coursework by our North American friends), Masters by Research, Masters of Philosophy (MPhil) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). There are some subject specific variations, such as the LLM in law or MBA in business/management. For Masters, you may see:

  • Master of Arts: A postgraduate degree everywhere in the UK, except in the Scottish Ancients where it is the undergraduate degree in the arts and humanities.
  • Master of Science: A postgraduate degree in any subject area (except vocational subjects such as law, engineering, education).

A range of institutions

The higher education sector in the UK is dominated by public universities which are characterised by their institutional autonomy. This means they are free to invest and generate income as best suited for them whilst having to demonstrate excellence of research and teaching to receive public funds which can range from 30-90% of their overall balance sheet. Some of the largest and most research intensive institutions will fund their operations through a range of funding and income generation, for example through partnerships with private businesses.

Even amongst public universities, there is great variation. Not necessarily in quality but in the range of programmes offered, expertise available and student experience, so it is worth getting to know potential universities a bit better before you make up your mind. Universities can differ on the basis of a number of criteria, to name a few:

  • Their size (from over 30,000 students to just a few hundred).
  • Postgraduate provision (broad spectrum of subjects or specialist focus).
  • Research-intensive activity.
  • Relationship with private sector and employers.
  • Community engagement.
  • Campus-based or in the city.

Private institutions awarding postgraduate degrees also exist in the UK. They tend to focus on areas such as the arts, business & management and theology.

It is not just in the UK that you can study at a UK institution. A growing number of UK universities are setting up campuses abroad.

Bologna Compliance

UK Masters and PhD are Bologna compatible which means that there is recognition and equivalence between UK degrees and those of the 47 signatories of the Bologna process.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, higher education qualifications are: 3+1+3 while in Scotland they are 4+1+3. It is, however, possible to undertake a PhD straight after an undergraduate degree, although this tends to be in the sciences rather than in the arts, social sciences and humanities.

Most Masters programmes involve 12 months of full time study (90 ECTS). Some programmes take 24 months (180ECTS); these are often offered in collaboration with EU universities. Both 12-month and 24-month programmes are fully Bologna compatible.

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