Help me understand British honors degrees

I just watched the final season of “Fresh Meat,” one of my favorite sitcoms, and I am now aware of something that I didn’t know existed—honors degrees.

Apparently, when you receive a bachelor’s degree from a British university, your degree is ranked:

  • First-class honors (“a one” or “a first”)
  • Upper second-class honors (“a two-one” or “a 2:1”)
  • Lower second-class honors (“a two-two” or “a 2:2”)
  • Third-class honors (“a three” or “a third”)
  • an “ordinary” or a “pass”

So, is this the British equivalent of a grade point average? It seems to be implied that if you don’t get at least lower second-class honors then your degree is basically garbage. Is that true?

A lot of American universities award honors, but these are considered recognition of superior work. Failure to win honors doesn’t mean your degree is suspect, and many universities don’t award them at all:

  • “cum laude” or “with honors”
  • “magna cum laude” or “with high honors”
  • “summa cum laude” or “with highest honors”

Here’s a rough translation to the American GPA system:

Note that there are no individual grades in courses to be averaged over an entire college career in the U.K. You take an exam at the end. This (and occasionally a few other things) determines what kind of honors you get.

It means that when my wife and I are in conflict over a point of fact one of us gets to say

"remind me again…which one of us got a first?

That depends on the degree and the university. You’re talking about the Oxbridge system, but not every school is on it.

And then to confuse things, in Australia most undergraduate degrees are 3 years, but you can do an additional years work and an honors thesis, then you have a BSc (Hons) for example instead of a BSc.

And even more confusingly, in Oz, many four year degrees (eg Engineering, Law) allow an honours degree with some additional workload within the four years - with the more able students being invited to enrol in the honours stream in earlier years.

Where it becomes really important is in entering postgraduate study. Usually an upper level (!st or 2a) honours degree is the prerequisite for higher degree study (aka PhD programme) and the grades for the honours degree make up the lions share of the ranking for awarding scholarships. (It used to be that the honours degree grades made up the entirety of the ranking, but weak departments started to game the system to try to ensure that they had lots of students studying higher degrees. So a broader assessment tends to be used now.)

Known for a time as a “Desmond”.

And people used, at Oxbridge, to talk about “a gentleman’s third”, indicating someone who isn’t actually likely to need to go out and look for a job with a degree but will probably go off to manage the family estates or business and therefore didn’t bother to apply themselves much.

ITYM “Gentleman’s Fourth” though fourth-class degrees are no longer awarded.

Nava writes:

> You’re talking about the Oxbridge system, but not every school is on it.

So what factors determine what kind of honors degree you get at British universities other than Oxford or Cambridge?

Acsenray writes:

> It seems to be implied that if you don’t get at least lower second-class honors then
> your degree is basically garbage.

This is the sort of exaggeration that people make when they think that they’re being hilarious. As you can see from the chart I posted a link to, a third-class honors is not garbage. In the U.S. it would be saying that most of your grades were between a B- and a C+. If you were planning to go on to graduate or professional school, you’re going to have a lot of trouble, but lots of people get third-class honors degrees, and most of them do just fine the rest of their lives.

It’s true that any degree is better than no degree, but a Desmond from anywhere other than a Russell Group universtity is not seen by most people as giving any indication of ability or learning.

And a Russell Group 2:1 probably ranks higher than a First from many other universities, in the eyes of an employer.

There is so much competition for places in the higher ranked universities in the UK, and it is most due to perception rather than an objective evaluation.

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I work in UK university admin (former polytechnic; nothing fancy) and our degree classifications are simply reflections of the overall percentage mark garnered from the latter two years’ marks, with the final year weighted heavier than the second.

And it’s slightly misleading to have the ‘Ordinary’ degree listed as lower than Third Class Honours in a way. At my university at least, an ‘Ordinary Degree’ is one where the student is lacking the full 360 undergraduate credits (usually the dissertation). So this doesn’t actually say anything about their average mark.

What’s the Russell Group?

When I did it back in 2007 (LLB (Hons) Lond) then Honours was something you could lose. For instance to get a First you needed an average over 4 (or 3) years of 70% or higher, but a fail (less than 40) in any subject over your degree would get you marked down to a Upper class Honours (2:1). If you had more than one fail IIRC you got marked down to a simple Upper Class, no honours.

You also had to have an interview with the UoL Senators before they approved you for Honours… Or something, it was confusing as hell. One girl in my year got a Upper class, despite basically aceing every exam because of some "disciplinary problems.

A bunch of Universities specialising in research.

Having worked in student recruitment for a pretty well-regarded Russell Group university, I second that. It really bugged me how students (and their parents!) seemed to set such store by things like the research assessment ratings and (IMO) rather questionable league tables: but in the end these are the modern version of establishing who are the “wise men” that young people go to sit at the feet of, if you see what I mean. But I grant, it’s very hard to judge what information helps you work out what would best suit the student concerned: I don’t think there can be an objective evaluation. And for employers, it must be just as complicated.

To my knowledge (but I’m happy to be corrected by others), the word “honours” as a classification for academic degrees in the UK has two distinct meanings.

The first meaning is the classification depending on grades achieved, i.e., the scale of First, Upper Second, Lower Second etc. that you describe.

The second meaning is an attribute that is affixed to a bachelor’s degree to denote some sort of quality that would be absent from a non-honours bachelor’s degree. This is indicated by the suffix “(Hons)” to the post-nominal letters. Where exactly that differentiation lies is very fuzzy. For instance, in some universities it seems that undergraduate programmes that take four rather than the usual (in these schools) three years are honours degrees. In other schools, however, it seems as if that suffix is added quite indiscriminately. Oxford, for instance, denotes some bachelor’s programmes as “honour schools”, which means they lead to an honours degree. For example, the undergraduate law degree (law can be studies directly at undergraduate level in Britain) at Oxford is the “Honour School of Jurisprudence”, and graduates of it are automatically “BA (Hons)” (later to be converted to an MA, but that’s a different story). To my knowledge, that goes for all the graduates in this programme, no matter which marks they achieve, even though the programme lasts for only three years. I have no clue which criteria Oxford applies to differentiate which programmes are “honour schools” and which are not.

When I graduated in 1990 my third class degree was known as a “Richard”. I don’t know if this is still the case.

McGill has yet a different system. You can do a majors degree or an honors degree. The former simply means you have taken lower/less demanding/less rigorous than the latter. But you still get marked A/B/C/D/F and a CGPA computed in the usual way. But an honors degree with a CGPA of 3.0 is a hell of a lot more impressive than a majors degree with 3.5. Generally speaking only an honors degree will prepare you for grad school.