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Academic qualifications overview

An overview of some of the academic qualifications on offer in schools, colleges and universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland:

General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE)

The GCSE is the first qualification in the British education system, usually completed by students aged 16.

What it can lead to

Access to AS- and A-level study, or to vocational programmes; initial career entry.

Entry requirements 

General education and English language.

Course content

Usually up to twelve subjects are taken; class tuition, coursework and exams. 

Duration

One or two years.  

Find out more about GCSEs.


AS- and A-level (Advanced Supplementary and Advanced level)

AS- and A-levels, and their Scottish equivalents, are the most popular option for continuing students after GCSEs, and are considered the ‘gold standard’ of British education.

What it can lead to

Access to degree study, skills and knowledge for career entry.

Entry requirements

Four or five GCSEs (grades A*–C).

Course content

Four or five subjects at AS-level, two to four at A-level; class tuition, essays, projects, exams.

Duration

Two years.

Find out more about A-levels.


International Baccalaureate (IB)

The IB is the equivalent of three A-levels and is widely accepted as an entry qualification by British universities and other institutions throughout the world. It is offered by a relatively small number of schools and colleges in the UK, but this is growing.

What it can lead to

Access to degree study, skills and knowledge for career entry.

Entry requirements

Four or five GCSEs (grades A*–C) or IB Middle Years Programme.

Course content

Six subjects are covered; class tuition, coursework, extracurricular activities, and an extended essay.

Duration

Two years.

Find out more about the IB.


Cambridge Pre-University (Pre-U) Diploma

A new flexible post-16 qualification aimed at giving students the skills necessary for study in higher education plus an in-depth knowledge of up to three subjects chosen from 26 covered by the Diploma.

What it can lead to

Access to degree study, skills and knowledge for career entry.

Entry requirements

Four or five GCSEs (grades A*–C).

Course content

Three subjects are covered; class tuition, coursework, extracurricular activities, an independent research report and a global perspective portfolio.

Find out more about the Pre-U.


Access and foundation programmes

These are aimed at students who need an introduction to academic study, further tuition in their chosen subject, or to improve their study skills and English language ability. Successful students can progress to a variety of different undergraduate courses.

What it can lead to

Access to degree study; general useful skills for career entry.

Entry requirements

General education, and a determination to improve English and academic skills.

Course content

Lectures, seminars and tutorials, assessed by a combination of coursework, projects and exams.

Duration

Flexible, but usually one or two years.

Find out more about access and foundation programmes.


First degree (Bachelor’s)

A first degree, leading to a BA (Bachelor of Arts), BSc (Bachelor of Science) or equivalent, is gained after three or more years studying at university or a similar institution. Degrees usually begin at the age of 18, after a student has finished school.

What it can lead to

Graduate career entry; access to postgraduate study.

Entry requirements

Two or three A-levels with AS-levels, GCSEs and English language proficiency (5.5–7.0 IELTS or 513–587 (paper-based), 183–240 (computer-based) or 65–95 (internet based) TOEFL).

Course content

Lectures, seminars and tutorials, assessed by a combination of coursework, projects and exams.

Duration

Three years (four for ‘sandwich’ programmes including work placements).

Note: in England, an honours degree is awarded for a high enough grade (a first, second or third-class degree). In Scotland, an undergraduate course lasts four years, and only the final year is honours year. If the final-year results are incomplete, honours will not be awarded.

Find out more about Bachelor’s degrees.


Postgraduate Diploma and Certificate (PgDip, PgCert)

The PG Cert and PG Dip are taught qualifications, and are not awarded for research. These qualifications are approximately intermediate in academic level between a first (Bachelor’s) degree and a Master’s degree.

What it can lead to

Entry to careers requiring highest levels of specific skills.

Entry requirements

Degree in relevant subject and English language proficiency (5.5–7.0 IELTS or 513–587 (paper-based), 183–240 (computer-based) or 65–95 (internet based) TOEFL).

Course content

Seminars, tutorials combined with a large amount of independent research and regular assignments. 

Duration

Nine months.

Find out more about Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas.


Taught Master’s degree

These postgraduate courses (MA (Master of Arts), MSc (Master of Science) or equivalent) are generally more specialised than first degrees, and focus on particular elements of an academic discipline, or on professional subject areas that are not available for undergraduate study.

What it can lead to

Entry to careers requiring highest levels of specific skills.

Entry requirements

Degree in relevant subject and English language proficiency (5.5–7.0 IELTS or 513–587 (paper-based), 183–240 (computer-based) or 65–95 (internet based) TOEFL).

Course content

Seminars, tutorials combined with a large amount of independent research and regular assignments. 

Duration

Nine months.

Find out more about taught master’s degrees.


Research Master’s/Doctorate

Research on at this level lead to the award of an MPhil (Master of Philosophy) or PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) and are usually given to successful candidates who undertake an original research project in any academic discipline.

PhD students often work part time, teaching students on Bachelor’s or taught Master’s degree programmes, or acting as tutors.

What it can lead to

Research- and/or teaching-based employment; graduate career entry with specialist skills and knowledge.

Entry requirements

Good degree in relevant subject and English language proficiency (6.0–7.0 IELTS or 550–587 (paper-based), 213–240 (computer-based) or 79–95 (internet based) TOEFL).

Course content

Independent research under guidance of supervisors, leading to a major dissertation. 

Duration

One to three years for a Master’s and at least three years for a Doctorate.

Find out more about research Master’s and doctorates.

                    


 
 
 
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