This is a guide to key terms used in UK education. Click on the letters below or scroll to find what you're looking for. For more information, please see Your study options.

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A-level (Advanced level) and AS-level (Advanced Supplementary level): Qualifications studied over two years by students in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and most widely accepted for entry to higher education in the UK. AS-level exams are taken at the end of the first year (called lower sixth or Year 12) and A-levels at the end of the second (called upper sixth or Year 13). See Further education

Academic: As well as its general meaning ('relating to education') the term also describes subjects which focus on theory, such as pure science and humanities, in contrast to more career-focused (vocational) courses.

Access course: A course aimed at students (often older students returning to education after a period in work), who do not yet meet the requirements to enter college or university.

Accredited: Describes institutions or courses that have been approved by an official body. (For example, Accreditation UK, a British Council and English UK scheme which offers an accreditation for English language schools. See Choosing a reputable English language centre).

Admission: Acceptance to a school, college or university.

Alumni (singular: alumnus): Former pupils or students of an academic institution. Most schools, colleges and universities have an ‘alumni association’ or society, which stay in touch with former students through newsletters and events.

Applied: A term often used to indicate that a qualification has a practical rather than theoretical focus – for example, courses in ‘applied science’ focus on practical experiments and science in the workplace.


Baccalaureate: See International Baccalaureate (IB). The Welsh Baccalaureate is a version of the IB programme tailored to pupils in Wales. Find out more in Education for students aged 16 and under

Bachelor’s degree: The most common higher education qualification in the UK, at undergraduate level. It is a three- or four-year course, where graduates may obtain a BA (Bachelor of Arts), BSc (Bachelor of Science), BEd (Bachelor of Education) or BEng (Bachelor of Engineering) depending on their subject of study. See Higher education – Courses and qualifications

BTECs (Business and Technology Education Council): EdExcel’s BTEC qualifications are one- or two-year courses in career-related subjects such as engineering, art and design, agriculture, and health and social care. They are ideal for students hoping to progress to a career at supervisory or technician level. See Further education

Bursary: An amount of financial aid for students to fund their studies. See Scholarships and financial support


Campus: The land owned by a university or college on which all or most of its facilities are located. A campus university often has accommodation, shops and catering in the same area as its teaching facilities.

CAS (Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies): A document issued by your chosen school, college or university, which may be used in your application for a student visa.

Chancellor: The head of a university or college, in name only – it is an honorary position. The Vice-Chancellor is the head of the university, responsible for its day-to-day running.

Civic university: Civic (or non-campus) universities are located in and around a town or city. Academic departments will be spread within the city’s commercial and residential areas.

Clearing: Operated by UCAS, this is the central system that allows students who don’t yet have a place at a UK higher education institution to apply to those that still have vacancies – students can apply between July and September for courses starting the same year. Find out more in the UCAS guide to Clearing.

Co-educational: Where boys and girls are educated together. At boarding schools, classes are often co-educational (or co-ed), but accommodation is separate.

College: An institution for education at a level between school and university – for example, a sixth-form college for A-levels, or a college of technology that offers vocational qualifications (see Further education). Some universities also use the term 'college' to refer to different institutions within a group, even where they only offer higher education. This is called a collegiate university, and the main examples are Oxford, Cambridge and Durham.

Combined degree: See Joint degree

Common entrance exam: An examination often taken by students hoping to enter independent schools in the UK.


Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE): A single qualification that is equivalent to two years of degree-level study. They tend to focus on the social sciences, nursing, health and education. See Higher education – Courses and qualifications and Shorter undergraduate courses

Dissertation: A long essay produced from your own research. It is often required at the end of a higher education course, and your degree results often depend on the successful completion of your dissertation.

Doctorate: A programme of postgraduate study, usually leading to a PhD qualification.


Essay: A piece of writing required by your course, either alongside your classes or as part of an exam.


Finals: An informal term for final exams.

Foundation course: A one-year course that bridges the gap between qualifications gained in your home country and those required for entry to university courses in the UK. This often includes English language tuition.

Foundation degree: A two-year undergraduate degree, equivalent to the first two years of an honours degree. It may be studied full- or part-time, and may include both academic study and a period of work experience. It can be studied as a standalone qualification, or upon completion, you may progress to the final year of an honours degree.

Fresher: An informal term for a new undergraduate student – for example, a student in their first year at university. Some universities hold a freshers’ week, which includes events for students to get to know each other, and for societies to sign up new members. See What is freshers' week?

Further education: This term relates to all courses undertaken after the end of compulsory education (in the UK, education after the age of 16 is not compulsory) but which are below higher education level. This includes academic qualifications such as A-levels and the International Baccalaureate, and vocational qualifications such as BTEC Firsts and Nationals. See more in Further education


GCE (General Certificate of Education): A general term to describe the combination of AS and A-levels.

GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education): Qualifications taken at age 14–16 in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. On average, pupils study around eight GCSE subjects, and GCSE results are required for students to progress to AS and A-levels. See Education for students aged 16 and under

GNVQs (General National Vocational Qualifications): Career-focused qualifications that used to be offered to students aged under 18, but have now been replaced with GCSEs, AS- and A-levels in subjects such as engineering and hospitality.

Grammar school: A type of secondary school. See Education for students aged 16 and under – The UK education path and Subjects and qualifications


Halls of residence (often referred to as 'halls'): Accommodation blocks owned by a college or university and rented to students. See Accommodation for details

Higher education: All education at university level, including both undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications. See Higher education

Highers: Scottish further education qualifications, normally taken at the end of the fifth year of secondary school at the age of 17. Highers are the qualifications most often required for entry to higher education courses in Scotland. See The Scottish education system

HNC (Higher National Certificate) or HND (Higher National Diploma): These are vocational higher education qualifications, which can lead straight to a career or provide a basis for higher education courses in the same subject area. HNCs are often studied part-time, except in Scotland, where they are full-time, one‑year programmes. See Shorter undergraduate courses

Homestay: Living with a UK family in their home. Homestays are especially popular with English language students or younger students. See Accommodation

Honours degree: The award made for the successful completion of a bachelor’s degree, which includes a greater depth of study than an 'ordinary' degree. It is written as BA (Hons) or BSc (Hons), for example. See Higher education

Humanities: The group of subjects or the academic department concerned with human thought and culture, such as philosophy, literature, archaeology, languages and art. See Social sciences and humanities


International Baccalaureate (IB): An increasingly popular alternative to A-levels, the IB Diploma is a two-year programme of study and is recognised for entry into higher education in the UK. See Further education

IGCSEs (International GCSEs): A version of the GCSE programme designed for students outside the UK. They are worth the same as a standard GCSE, and are equally recognised by UK institutions.

IELTS (International English Language Testing System): A test of English as a foreign language often requested by UK institutions. See Learn English – Courses and qualifications

Independent school: Also known as private schools or public schools, these schools are funded privately, mostly from course fees charged to pupils’ parents – in contrast to state schools, which are government-run and free to attend. See The UK education path

Institution: A general term used to describe an education provider. This could be a university, collegeschool or English language centre.

International Study Centres: These centres are linked with UK boarding schools and offer one- or two-year intensive courses to prepare you for life at a UK boarding school.


Joint degree or joint honours: A degree programme covering more than one subject, such as a bachelor’s degree in English and History, or a master's in Philosophy and Politics. You can often choose how much time you would like to spend on each subject.


Lower sixth: See Sixth form


Master’s degree: A higher education degree undertaken after the completion of a bachelor’s degree (as a postgraduate course), though some courses – particularly in Scotland – lead directly to a master’s degree. See Higher education – Courses and qualifications

Mature student: A student who begins or returns to further or higher education after the age of 21.

Modular course: A course consisting of several independent units. Most higher education courses are made up of modules, allowing students to study different topics within their subject area.


National Certificate: A vocational further education qualification in Scotland, usually taken over one year, which can lead on to an HNC or HND.

National Curriculum: The programme of study that must be followed in state schools in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. The National Curriculum includes certain compulsory subjects such as English, maths and science.

National Qualifications (NQs): National Qualifications are one of three main groups of qualifications awarded by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. The main types of National Qualifications are Standard Grades, National Units, National Courses and Group Awards (vocational qualifications). They are usually studied over one year and can lead on to an HNC or HND.

NVQ (National Vocational Qualifications): Work-based qualifications, which will to enable you to learn the skills for particular job. You are normally assessed in the workplace, so NVQs are available if you have a full-time or part-time job or access to a workplace. See Further education


O-level (Ordinary level): An old term for the qualifications prior to A-levels, O-levels have now been replaced by GCSEs.

Ordinary degree: In general, an 'ordinary' or 'unclassified' degree may be awarded if a student has completed a full degree course but hasn't obtained the level of study required for an honours degree. In Scotland, an ordinary degree is usually a three-year full-time course, while an honours degree is a four-year course.

Orientation: A range of sessions or activities run by an institution to help new students settle in, such as a campus tour. See Settling in

Oxbridge: An informal term referring to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.


Pastoral care: Social and welfare support. A welfare officer is a member of staff at your college or university responsible for ensuring your welfare, and for giving advice on issues such as accommodation, finances and health.

PhD: The highest academic qualification in the UK. See Higher education courses and qualifications

Postdoc: A period of mentored research after the completion of a PhD, as a postdoctoral researcher or research fellow. See Research grants and opportunities

Postgraduate: Courses of study taken after completing an undergraduate degree. See Higher education

Pre-sessional: Additional instruction that is undertaken before the start of the full course. For example, many university students take pre-sessional English language programmes if English is not their first language.

Prep school (or preparatory school): An independent school (for fee-paying students) that provides primary education up to the age of 13.

Primary education: The first stage of compulsory education for young children.

Private school: See Independent school

Professional qualifications: A qualification awarded by a professional body, such as the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) or Chartered Management Institute (CMI).

Prospectus: A print or online brochure listing the courses and facilities offered by a university or college, intended as a guide for prospective students.

Public school: See Independent school


Redbrick university: ‘Redbrick’ is an informal term for universities founded in the late 1800s or early 1900s, historically civic universities in former industrial cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield.

Registration: The process of enrolling on a course.

Research degree: At postgraduate level, a research degree is a programme of original study, where you gather and analyse information to draw your own conclusions. See Higher education

Russell Group: The Russell Group of universities is an association of UK research institutions, and is informally considered the UK equivalent of the Ivy League in the US. It has 24 members, with 20 universities in England, two in Scotland, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland.


Sandwich course: A programme of study that is split by work experience. A sandwich year (during which you work in a professional environment) usually follows two years of academic study, and is followed by another.

Scholarship: A financial grant given to students to contribute to the cost of their studies, usually as a reward for high achievement. See Scholarships and financial support

Secondary education: Compulsory education for pupils aged 11 to 16 in England, Northern Ireland and Wales; and 12 to 17 in Scotland.

Seminar: A class at university or college in which a small group of students is encouraged to engage in a discussion or debate.

Sixth form: The first and second years of further education in a UK school or sixth form college (except Scotland), often called Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth. See Further education – Colleges and other institutions

State schools: These schools are free of charge for pupils to attend, and every child in the UK is entitled to a place. These schools are maintained and funded by the government or the local education authority. See The UK education path

Students’ Union: An independent body that represents and campaigns for student welfare within your university, and organises a variety of clubs and societies. See The Students’ Union


Taught degree: In reference to a master’s degree, a taught degree programme contains both taught modules and a research element.

Term: A full academic year in the UK is usually divided into three terms – autumn term, spring term and summer term – with holidays in between. Schools often have a one-week half-term break in the middle of each term too.

Thesis: Like a dissertation, a thesis is a written document demonstrating a student’s research, generally at PhD level.

TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language): A common American equivalent of IELTS.

Tutorial college: A type of further education institution that provides education to international students to prepare them for university.


UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service): UCAS manages the central system through which students apply for higher education courses. All applications to full-time undergraduate degrees, Foundation Degrees, BTEC HND, DipHE and some postgraduate courses must be made through UCAS. See Higher education – Choosing and applying for a course

UCAS Tariff: UCAS awards a points score, called a tariff, to all UK qualifications that are widely accepted for entry to higher education, including A-levels, Scottish Highers, BTEC Nationals and CACHE Diplomas, as well as additional qualifications such as Key Skills and Music Grades. Institutions quote their entry requirements in terms of a score.

Undergraduate: Describes courses taken by students in the process of studying for their first degree, at higher education level. Students at this level are also described as undergraduates. See Higher education

Units: Short periods of study on a specific subject, which combined form a complete course of study. Modular courses are often composed of units, and many Scottish qualifications are made up of National Units.

University College: An institution that offers courses at higher education level, which may or may not award its own degrees. A University College may teach degree programmes that are validated by another institution, or may be waiting for confirmation of its own degree-awarding powers.


Varsity: A term that refers to university, such as a 'varsity football game'.

Vice-Chancellor: The head of a university, responsible for its management.

Viva (or viva voce): A spoken examination, often a verbal questioning on a written essay or dissertation, to demonstrate your knowledge of the subject.

Vocational: A general term used to describe any practical, work-related training or course. UK colleges that provide especially good training in a particular vocational subject area may be designated a Centre of Vocational Excellence (CoVE).


Welfare officer: See Pastoral care

Work experience: A period spent within a work environment, as part of your studies, to give you an introduction to the industry. This work is usually unpaid and may or may not count toward the successful completion of your course.

Work placement: A longer, more formal period of work experience. Work placements are generally organised by your college or university, as a structured part of the course. This work may be paid. For any work experience or work placement, check your visa status allows it. See Working alongside your studies