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or why Eames may have read at university and would be happy with a Damien but probably not a Douglas or a Desmond.

The next part in my quick and dirty overview of the British education system. Thank you very much for all your replies, I will attempt to incomportate some of the additional aspects you have mentioned into the guide with appropriate thanks, citations and attributions.

Usual caveats - this is focused mostly on England/Wales/N Ireland University system, I will try and highlight Scotland differences, but I went to Uni in England, so that's what I know. I did go from BSc all the way up to PhD, so I like to think I'm pretty au fait with the academic system, but I did so all at the same uni (York), so as always there are variations I may not have picked up.

I decided to split up the University guide into two bits because it was becoming excessive. I know there are things I haven't dealt with (Undergraduate masters, clinical doctorates, law degrees) but this should cover the basics of degrees pretty well.

Next part will be over University life, University fees (and why students have been rioting) and types of University.

Finally, this is meant to be a high level over-view not a definitive guide - and I am in no way touching the recent changes made because I have no idea of their impact.

University Basics

Students apply to university in the Upper Sixth year using their predicted (and AS) A-Level grades via a system called UCAS - normally to six universities (max). Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) uni applications are dealt with earlier than the normal deadline and you can only apply to one or the other (and usually to a specific college, though you can do an open application and have a college assigned - from personal experience, this is not advised).

One vitally important distiction betwee the UK and US systems is that in the UK you apply to study a specific course - usually a single subject - rather than to the University as a whole. Different courses at the same university can often have different entrance requirements depending on the popularity of the course, the departments reputation and so on, although the university reputation generally means that the entrance requirements will be similar.

There is no general education requirement, students will generally only study modules related to their course and the core ones of these will generally be compulsory - although there is often later on in the course some flexibility to allow for specialisation. You can (but don't have to) drop one or two modules to take electives in another course, but only if there are spaces and it doesn't cause timetabling issues.

You are said to *read* a specific subject/course - occasionally you can have dual honours or combined courses which do two subjects (eg Psychology and Criminology or Physics and Philosophy) but again, those would be the only two subjects covered.

Exception: Scottish Universities have a broader criteria in the 1st year and some universities, eg Lancaster, it is compulsory to take electives in other subjects in your first year. Cambridge is also wierd and I will cover it later on when I deal with Oxbridge. These are, however, exceptions not the rule.

The result of this is clearly significantly more depth in the coverage of a single subject and the reason why some subjects which are Post-graduate degrees in the US are undergrad in the UK eg Law (although you do need to do a one year post-grad I believe to actually practice) or Medicine (although that's a 5 year course). However, this is obviously at the expense of breadth of general knowledge.

Another important point about this, its difficult to change course after the first few weeks (and even then you need to have the entrance requirements for that course and there needs to be spaces) and its very very rare, at least at undergraduate level, to transfer institution (it can happen at PhD level though if your supervisor moves).


Types of Courses

Diplomas (e.g. Higher National Diploma) - one to two year courses, often vocational or professional in nature and is often considered the equivalent of the first year at university.

Bachelors (BA/BSc or similar) - the standard undergraduate degree, this is usually with honours, usually indicating that the student has submitted a significant disseration as a final year project (usually some form of rigorous research) which counts for a strong percentage of their degree. Takes 3 years normally, though some degree courses will have a year-in-industry bringing them up to 4. All Scottish courses are 4 years.

At the end the student will receive a degree classification depending on their marks in different modules. It will depend on course what counts towards your final classification and how they are put together. Most courses don't count the first year but some do (you still need to pass however), and the third year will usually account for more of your final classification.

1st Class Degree (a Damien after Damien Hirst) - Equivalent of a 3.8-4.0 grade average (according to UCL). This is generally an average over 70%. Because of the grading curve, this is harder than you think - just being factually accurate won't usually do it.

2nd Class Degree - most students fall into this if they've even done a bit of work. It is split into:
2.1 (a Two-One, known colloquially as a Trevor, after Trevor Nunn, or an Attila, after Attila the Hun)- Between 60-70% average, equivalent to a 3.3-3.79 US GPA. This is the degree class required by most big graduate employers and is generally considered the 'employers' degree (as opposed to a first, which is considered the academics degree).

2.2 (a Two-Two, known as a Desmond, after Desmond Tutu). 50-60% average, equivalent to a 3.0-3.29 US GPA the minimum required to get into any sort of postgraduate course, though most will demand a 2.1

Third - the lowest classifcation awarded to honours degrees - a 40-50% average. Known as a Thora (Thora Hird) or the 'gentleman's degree'.

Taught Masters (MSc, MA) - 12 month full-time courses to get a masters. Again, like with the bachelors, there is a significant level of depth by sacrificing depth. To get a masters degree you need to complete a significant, original, piece of research as part of the degree as well as the taught courses. Applications to a post-graduate course are generally made in the third year of an undergraduate degree and will often make offers based on predicted degree classification (which may be conditional on receiving that classification).

Research Masters (MRes, MPhil) - as above, 12 year full-time postgraduate course conducted entirely or predominantly based on a single, substantial piece of research. This will often be a pre-cursor to a PhD but can be done in isolation.

Research Doctorate (PhD, DPhil) - Three to four years postgraduate work. A research doctorate is assessed entirely on the basis of the research thesis. There is no consistent taught component, although some PhDs may ask the candidate to attend certain classes if relevant, this is relatively rare. It is possible to go straight from a Bachelors to a PhD but there is a move towards encouraging people to get a Masters first - either funded as part of the PhD (1+3 funding) or as a prerequisite of getting on the PhD course. PhD are considered to take 3 years, with the 4th year often referred to as the 'write up' year, and as such PhD funding is always for 3 years only. A significant number of PhD students will self-fund however, and often students will also work as Graduate Teaching Assistants to get extra money.


Structure of Undergraduate courses

The emphasis of UK undergraduate degrees is on independent study and original thought. No one will chase you up if you don;t do the reading, failure to submit work will result in failing that work and though you may receive a reminder if you fail to turn up for tutorials/lectures, it is perfectly possible to miss all of them with little consequence if you turn up to the exam.

The number of contact hours varies dramatically depending on the course. Sciences have a lot more contact hours, including lab time, with Physics students often having some of the fullest time-tables. At the other end of the scale, humanities students, for example, History of Art, have hardly any contact hours at all (about 4 hours a week I've heard quoted) but a lot of reading (theoretically).

Regular tests or continual assessment are rare (or if they do exist count for a very small % of the module mark), generally assessment will be made based on one or two large pieces of course-work by module and an end of module exam. Some however will be entirely based a single piece of coursework, others may be entirely down to the exam.

When exams take place depend on the course and the university. Often, different courses at the same university will use different schedules to fit everyone into exam halls. Some courses/unis will have them every term (just before Christmas, Easter and Summer holidays), some use a semester system (just after Christmas and Summer). The term Finals is usually only used for the last exams of the degree (usually Easter or Summer of the third year) and there are no mid-terms.

Essentially, there are considerably less assessments but each assessment counts for a lot more of the grade.

Next part - Life, Fees and Types of University.

Again, this is a high level over-view - this is such a wide area and its difficult to identify what is actually different about UK compared to other countries. If I've missed anything, please let me know.


( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
13th Jan, 2011 20:43 (UTC)
Regarding Law (should it be relevant): The post-graduate course is (as far as I know) only for those who want to be a barrister, and is a vocational course that teaches things like advocacy and client interview skills, and is only available in about 10 Unis. Solicitors have a separate accreditation body.
14th Jan, 2011 18:26 (UTC)
Thank you, I fully admit I know nothing about law degrees, not having done one myself.

But yes, that raises a nice quirk about our legal system - we don't have just lawyers, we have solicitors (who do the office-based legal stuff/research) and barristers who present the case in court.
14th Jan, 2011 08:06 (UTC)
My contribution to this.
Warning for pretentiousness.

I've read a lot of fics where writers put Eames at Cambridge or Oxford, so I'd like to point out at Oxbridge, degree names are a bit different. A Master of Arts/Sciences at other unis is a Master of Studies (MSt), and a PhD is called a DPhil. So, for example, Eames would have read for his DPhil at Cambridge, not his PhD.
14th Jan, 2011 11:24 (UTC)
Re: My contribution to this.
Also, at Oxford (and possibly Cambridge but I've been to more Oxford graduations) you graduate with you bachelors and then after a specific period of time (wikipedia tell me 7 years from matriculation) you can get your degree 'upgraded' to a MA (Oxon) without any further work on your part (I believe a nominal amount of money may change hands here for historical reasons).
Re: My contribution to this. - fit_haver - 14th Jan, 2011 13:10 (UTC) - Expand
Re: My contribution to this. - surexit - 15th Jan, 2011 05:38 (UTC) - Expand
Re: My contribution to this. - gemnoire - 14th Jan, 2011 17:59 (UTC) - Expand
Re: My contribution to this. - surexit - 15th Jan, 2011 05:38 (UTC) - Expand
Re: My contribution to this. - eleveninches - 15th Jan, 2011 05:41 (UTC) - Expand
Re: My contribution to this. - surexit - 15th Jan, 2011 05:50 (UTC) - Expand
14th Jan, 2011 12:14 (UTC)
I am a second year humanities student (Eng Lit) and we have about 8 hours contact time (annoyingly, this semester mine's all early mornings; I am the least morning person ever).
14th Jan, 2011 17:57 (UTC)
Thank you, I didn't know many humanities students at uni so I wasn't certain of the exact comparison.

Psychology we had about 16, I hear biologists are about 20ish and physicists are 35+ for comparison.
14th Jan, 2011 12:51 (UTC)
Part 1
A number of universities in the UK have started offering 4 year courses without an industrial year but with a masters year tacked on the end instead. This is mostly a funding weeze and you are more likely to find it occurring in science subjects (I think).

Third class degrees are also sometimes referred to as a 'Douglas' (Douglas Hurd).

Regarding PhDs:

When you start doing a phd (pronounced fud if you don't want to sound the letters out) you always start 'officially' doing a MPhil (Master of Philosophy) and then at some point, normally during the second year around the 18 month mark, you will have a small examination/check (normally just internal examiners, i.e. your supervisor(s) and your internal examiner(s), you will have done a write up of your work so far and will have an oral exam on that, sometimes referred to as a mini-viva) to check you are on the right track and on the basis of this you will be officially transferred to being a PhD candidate.

In some respects this transference is just an official, routine thing and from a researcher's perspective it doesn't really change anything other than what is on a bit of paper you never see somewhere. In some places it just automatically happens, in other places it is quite a big deal. It is extremely rare for someone to not get transferred (although that obviously doesn't stop you from stressing about it when it is happening to you) although in some universities are getting more formal/strict about it because if they have got funding for you and you don't submit within the four year limit then they get fined and universities really hate giving money back. It does however tend to be a bit of a crux point so if people are gong to drop out then this can be the final push.

You may also do a project at around the 9 month-1 year mark just to show that you have a rough idea where you are, can read papers and generally be academic-y. This varies from uni to uni and department to department and again can be both a drop-out point. It is not totally unknown to totally change what you are studying at this point (say, for example, switching from studying attention and disruption across multiple displays to the semantic web and online communities) but you will be expected to have a pretty good idea of at least what area you are looking at (although not necessarily the exact question) and done a lot of the groundwork at this point.

When you get to the end, decided on what question you are answering etc, you write a thesis and then get examined on it in an oral exam called a viva. This is different in every country so this is how it works in the UK.

First you write the thesis. In sciences these will probably be only one volume but in humanities/social sciences may well be two or three (appendixes, source material etc). There are max and min word counts but they don't include supplemental material *evil grin*. It is expected that you will have given at least a few papers at international, peer reviewed conferences over the course of your study so often the first move when writing up is to take the reports that you wrote earlier (including the lit review which, if you are lucky, you wrote in your first year and just have to brush up a bit) and the papers you wrote, squish them all together and then see what you have to change to make it read properly and fill in the gaps - viola - one thesis.
14th Jan, 2011 12:53 (UTC)
Part 2 - The Viva
Having created your thesis you submit (at least) three (softbound) copies. One goes to your supervisor, one to your internal examiner (your 'Internal') and one to your external examiner (your 'External'). The Internal will be from your department and might well have previously examined you on your subject but will not have worked with you closely (although they could well be someone that you have drinks with on a Friday night depending on how social your department is). The External will have been selected as someone appropriate by your supervisor and Internal (they might have consulted with the candidate for ideas on this but not necessarily). Obviously there are all sorts of academic hierarchies and networks for being external examiners.

Having submitted your thesis everyone gets a chance to read it before they examine you on it. I believe the minimum time is a month from submission to viva but that might not be an actual rule. Equally they try and not make candidates wait too long after submission but you do get rare cases where it can be up to/over a year just because they can't find a date to get all the necessary people in the same room at the same time.

When the day actually comes you all sit in a little room and the candidate defends what they wrote. The roles of the people in the room are as follows:

Candidate - defend thesis/life's work for the last 3 years

Supervisor - general witness, partly there to make sure that the examiners stick to the point and aren't unreasonable. Is actually optional but it is very, very rare for them not to be there and about the only time that happens is because there has been a real scheduling issue or because the candidate and their supervisor have had a massive disagreement.

External - ask the difficult questions and generally grill (or at least lightly broil) the candidate. (I believe this is the opposite of the American system where the external is more there as a check and balance rather than the focus)

Internal - asks questions and raises issues but is also there to make sure that the external is not totally unreasonable in their demands. They will often, afterall, know the candidate and be a bit more invested in them passing while (obviously) wanting to uphold academic rigour.

Vivas can last anything from under an hour to an entire morning depending how much there is to discuss/defend but more than 4/5 is rare and the Supervisor and/or Internal will probably try and close it down. They can vary from a very friendly-type chat to a vicious pulling apart of everything from base principles up. At the end the candidate goes out and hangs around outside the room while the Internal and External discuss what they have heard and what type of pass they want to give. It is possible at this point to fail or be told that you are being awarded a MPhil rather than a PhD (the later may be because it is good research but it just doesn't have an original contribution to current knowledge but odds are good that if that is the case the candidate will know that before going in and will probably be gong against advice to to for an MPhil rather than PhD). However what normal happens is after making the candidate sweat for a bit they are invited back in to the room and the external will congratulate the new doctor.
Part 3 - Post-Viva - fides - 14th Jan, 2011 12:54 (UTC) - Expand
Re: Part 3 - Post-Viva - gemnoire - 14th Jan, 2011 17:49 (UTC) - Expand
Re: Part 3 - Post-Viva - gemnoire - 14th Jan, 2011 17:55 (UTC) - Expand
Re: Part 3 - Post-Viva - fides - 14th Jan, 2011 19:08 (UTC) - Expand
Re: Part 3 - Post-Viva - fides - 14th Jan, 2011 19:18 (UTC) - Expand
15th Jan, 2011 00:09 (UTC)
When I go to Uni...my contact hours for Spanish and Chinese will be about 12-15 hours. And I checked a couple of Unis and my...end of year things is most exams seen as though is it grammar and language learning.

Thanks for this guide too!!!
15th Jan, 2011 05:40 (UTC)
Cambridge is also wierd and I will cover it later on when I deal with Oxbridge.

I ENTIRELY agree that Cambridge is weird, but you seem to be specifically saying that it is weird about electives? I am le curious, I didn't notice any specific weirdness around that area.
15th Jan, 2011 07:31 (UTC)
Not so much on electives but on course structure since it uses the Tripos system so you don't tend to study a single subject (rather if you are doing physics for example, you'd do Natural Sciences and specialise in Physics). But again, since I haven't been to Cambridge I am mostly going off what I've heard from friends who have.
(no subject) - surexit - 15th Jan, 2011 07:37 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gemnoire - 15th Jan, 2011 11:32 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - surexit - 15th Jan, 2011 11:36 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - surexit - 15th Jan, 2011 11:39 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gemnoire - 15th Jan, 2011 11:43 (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
15th Jan, 2011 11:30 (UTC)
... ah yes, the wonderful differences between universities.

Ours we could take up to two modules in electives (out of 12 core) but most people didn't bother (I certainly didn't). Of course since you needed to meet the pre-requisits usually the electives would only be introductory basic stuff.
18th Jan, 2011 12:59 (UTC)
Scottish universities are quite different. Students will typically apply in their penultimate year at school (Fifth Year) at the age of 15/16, based on their PREDICTED Higher results. Highers are the most important exam in Scotland and it is possible to go straight to university and skip the last year: hence, Scottish students can start university at sixteen in theory. Most students choose to stay on for sixth year in order to get Advanced Highers, if they are applying for more competitive courses (e.g. Medicine), or to gain more Highers if they did poorly in Fifth Year. This still means that many Scottish students are 17 when they go to university. If students have received an unconditional offer from a university based on their Fifth Year results - not uncommon - then Sixth Year turns into a bit of joke sometimes as your Advanced Highers stop mattering. Advanced Highers are at a slightly higher level than A levels and in some degrees, mostly science I think, you can skip first year of uni if you did an Advanced Higher.

Most undergraduate degrees are four years long and certainly in Humanities tend to be Masters (MAs). In the first years of Humanities subjects, three courses are taken: your Honours subject (the one you applied for) and two other Humanities subjects, all in equal ammounths. In second year, one of these subjects is dropped and replaced with another 'first year' course, and the other two subjects are continued. Sufficient grades must be attained in second year to enter Honours in the subject you applied for. Third and fourth year courses are entirely your degree subject and you choose between specialisations. Both years contribute to your final degree. There is also the opportunity to do an exchange year in third year.

Hope that is useful. Glancing back, I'm come over all formal. Oh well!
(Deleted comment)
20th Jan, 2011 20:18 (UTC)
Generally percentages and significant feedback - but this will vary from department to department - if it counts for their degree.

Sometimes it may only be a classification (fail, pass, 3rd, 2.2, 2.1, 1st) and I have, on very rare occasions, heard of letters being used, but that's an exception definitely not a rule. These however will usually only be for marks that don't actually count towards the final classification (eg during the first year), if it counts towards your final degree, you will, in my experience, always get a percentage.

Most essays will be marked by graduate teaching assistants (PhD students), with usualy a number double-marked by the lecturer. Exams (including open papers) are always marked by the lecturer, as are dissertations/final year projects (the latter of which are always double marked).

Any and all work that counts towards the final degree are marked anonymously using exam numbers not name. The students name should never appear anywhere on an assessed piece of work to attempt to keep the marking process as unbiased as possible.

At our university (and I believe this is common) work is feed back generally by the student's tutor (assigned at the beginning of their course and kept throughout) in a one to one session or, for smaller continuous pieces of work, into student's pigeon holes. With the exception of your final project/dissertation, where you can usually get feedback from your supervisor if you want it (but don't have to).

Module marks (percentages) themselves however are often available online these days once they've been marked, associated with exam number never name.
12th Sep, 2012 19:28 (UTC)
I am shocked at how different University is in the UK than it is here in Canada. I knew there were differences, but I didn't realise it was an entirely different species of school. I'm not reading this for fic, just for my own entertainment, but it was very informative! Thanks!
( 31 comments — Leave a comment )