The British undergraduate degree classification system is a grading scheme used to distinguish between the achievements of undergraduate degree holders (such as those gaining bachelor's degrees or undergraduate master's degrees) in the United Kingdom. The system has been applied (often with minor variations) in other countries, such as the Republic of Ireland, Singapore and Hong Kong. It is similar to the Latin honours system used in the United States.
The biggest distinction made is whether the degree is awarded with or without honours. Nowadays, nearly all candidates sit for honours; an ordinary (or pass) degree (i.e. a degree without honours) is usually awarded to a candidate who marginally fails the honours examination, or significant parts of it. A candidate who fails badly is usually allowed to retake the examination for a pass degree, as most universities prohibit such a student from receiving honours.
Most universities award a class of degree based on the average mark of the assessed work a candidate has completed. Below is a list of the possible classifications with common abbreviations. rough percentages for each class are also listed, these percentages vary between subjects and universities. Honours degrees are in bold:
- First-Class Honours (First or 1st) (70% and above) (OPEN UNIVERSITY 85%+)
- Upper Second-Class Honours (2:1, 2.i) (60-70%) (OPEN UNIVERSITY 70-85%)
- Lower Second-Class Honours (2:2, 2.ii) (50-60%) (OPEN UNIVERSITY 55-70%)
- Third-Class Honours (Third or 3rd) (40-50%) (OPEN UNIVERSITY 40-55%)
- Ordinary degree (pass) (OPEN UNIVERSITY AWARDED AT 300 CATS POINTS)
- Fail (no degree is awarded)
- Unclassified (some degrees aren't classified eg medicine or masters degree)
The system does allow for a small amount of discretion and candidates may be elevated up to the next degree class if their average mark is close and they have submitted many pieces of work worthy of the higher class. However, they may be demoted a class if they fail to pass all parts of the course even if they have a high average.
There are also variations between universities (especially in Scotland, where honours are usually reserved only for courses lasting four years or more) and requirements other than the correct average are often needed to be awarded honours.
When a candidate is awarded a degree with honours, they can suffix (Hons) to their class of degree, such as BA (Hons) or BSc (Hons).
At University of Oxford and University of Cambridge, honours classes apply to examinations, not to degrees. Thus, in Cambridge, where undergraduates are examined at the end of each part of the tripos, a student may receive different classifications for different parts. The classification of the final part is usually considered the classification of the degree. At Oxford, the Final Honour School results are generally applied to the degree.
In some universities, candidates who successfully complete one or more years of degree-level study, but choose not to or fail to complete a full degree, may be awarded a lower qualification - a Certificate of Higher Education or Higher National Certificate for one year, or a Diploma of Higher Education or Higher National Diploma for two years.
First Class Honours
In most universities, First-Class Honours is the highest honours which can be achieved, with about 15% of candidates achieving a First nationally.
A minority of universities award First-Class Honours with Distinction, informally known as a starred first.
A Double First can refer to first class honours in two separate subjects, e.g. Classics and Mathematics, or alternatively to first class honours in the same subject in subsequent examinations, e.g. subsequent Parts of the tripos at the University of Cambridge (Cambridge University Jargon). At Cambridge, it is even possible to obtain a Double-Starred First (noted recipients being Quentin Skinner and Orlando Figes), or, in rare cases such as Maurice Zinkin and Neal Ascherson, a Triple-Starred First.
The bulk of university graduates fall into Second-Class Honours, which is sub-divided into Upper Second-Class Honours and Lower Second-Class Honours. These divisions are commonly abbreviated to 2:1 (pronounced two-one) and 2:2 (pronounced two-two) respectively. Despite 2:1s and 2:2s just being subdivisions of the same class (though a large one), the perceived difference between them is high (employers usually only make the distinction between graduates with 2:1s and above or 2:2s and below).
Third-Class Honours is the lowest honours classification in most modern universities (though until the 1970s, Oxford used to award Fourth-Class Honours degrees, although they did not divide Second-Class Honours and so still had four classes like everyone else).
A candidate who is unable to take his or her exams because of illness can sometimes be awarded an aegrotat degree; this is an honours degree without classification, awarded on the understanding that had the candidate not been unwell, he or she would have passed.
Progression to further study
Regulations governing the progression of undergraduate degree graduates to higher-degree programmes vary between universities, and the rules are often flexible. A candidate for a postgraduate master's degree is usually required to have at least a 2:2 honours degree (though some institutions specify a 2:1). Candidates with third class honours or pass degrees are sometimes accepted, provided they have acquired satisfactory professional experience subsequent to graduation. A candidate for a doctorate/doctoral programme who does not hold a masters degree is nearly always required to have a First or 2:1.
Undergraduate degree honours slang
An interesting form of rhyming slang has developed from degree classes, relying on the names of famous people that sound similar to the classes:
- A First is known as a Geoff Hurst/Damien Hirst (as 'First' sounds like 'Hurst' or 'Hirst')
- A 2:1 is known as an Attila the Hun (as '2:1' sounds like 'the Hun')
- A 2:2 is known as a Desmond Tutu (as '2:2' sounds like 'Tutu')
- A Third is known as a Douglas Hurd/Thora Hird (as 'Third' sounds like 'Hurd' or 'Hird')
According with the conventions of rhyming slang, only the person's first name is used. Thus, one can be awarded a Geoff (First), Attila (2:1), Desmond (2:2), or a Douglas (Third).
In addition, 2:2s are often light heartedly referred to as 'drinker's degrees', with the implication that the graduate spent more time in the students' union bar than studying. A Third is sometimes known as a 'Richard' after the monarch Richard III of England/Richard III or a 'Vorderman' as British TV celebrity mathematician Carol Vorderman only received a Third at university. Finally, a pass degree is sometimes known as a 'Khyber' (after the cockney rhyming slang phrase 'Khyber Pass').
At the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, a Third has also been called a ' gentleman's ' (degree). It is an archaic term that used to be used to describe the poor performance of students who were only admitted due to their prestigious family background. For most of their long history, Oxford and Cambridge only admitted men.