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First-class honours

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First-class honours

The British undergraduate degree classification system is a grading structure for undergraduate degrees (bachelor's degrees and integrated master's degrees) in the United Kingdom. The system has been applied (sometimes with significant variations) in other countries, including Australia, Bangladesh, Barbados, Canada, Egypt, Hong Kong, India, Republic of Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Ghana, Malaysia, Malta, Mauritius, Myanmar, Nepal, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Whereas grade point averages (GPAs) are not comparable to the British undergraduate degree classes,[1] the Latin honours system used in the United States is different from the British system, but has some similarities.[2]


In the 16th century, the Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge implemented norm referencing to distinguish the top 25% of candidates, the next 50%, and the bottom 25%.[3]

The classification system as currently used in the United Kingdom was developed in 1818.[3] Honours was then a means to recognise individuals who demonstrated depth of knowledge or originality, as opposed to relative achievement in examination conditions.[4]

Recently, grade inflation has been identified as a significant issue, with increasing numbers of higher-class honours degrees awarded per annum.[5][6][7] The number of first-class honours degrees has reportedly tripled since the 1990s.[8] Similar to grade inflation of A-levels, prospective employers or educational institutions have observed increased difficulty in selecting candidates.[4][9] The practice of degree classification has been criticised for unduly stigmatising students and being unreflective of a graduate's success or potential for success, particularly in the workplace.[10]

Degree classification

A degree may be awarded with or without honours, with the class of an honours degree based on a weighted average mark of the assessed work a candidate has completed. The degree classifications are:

  • First class honours (1st)
  • Second class honours, upper division (2:1)
  • Second class honours, lower division (2:2)
  • Third class honours (3rd)
  • Ordinary degree (Pass)

At most institutions, the system allows a small amount of discretion.[10] A candidate may be elevated to the next degree class if his or her average marks are close to (or the median of their weighted marks achieves), the higher class, and if they have submitted several pieces of work worthy of the higher class. However, even students with a high average mark may be demoted a class if they fail to pass all parts of the course.

There are also variations between universities, especially in Scotland, where honours are usually reserved only for courses that last four years or more, with a three-year course leading to the awarding of an Ordinary degree (see Master of Arts (Scotland)). Achievements other than the average mark are often needed for a student to be awarded honours. In Scotland, it is possible to start university a year younger than in the rest of the United Kingdom, as the Scottish Higher exams are often taken at age 17 (as opposed to 18), so Scottish students often end a four-year course at the same age as a student from elsewhere in the U.K. taking a three-year course, assuming no gap years.

When a candidate is awarded a degree with honours, "(Hons)" may be suffixed to their designatory letters—for example, BA (Hons), BSc (Hons), MA (Hons). An MA (Hons) would generally indicate a degree award from certain Scottish universities. However, honours are awarded when 360 tariff points are achieved (typically 6 modules at 20 credits each per year), with a non-honours degree requiring at least 300 tariff points.

At the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge,[11] unlike other universities,[12] honours classes apply to examinations, not degrees. At Oxford, where examinations are split between Prelims for the first part and Honour Moderations for the second part, the results of the Final Honour School are generally applied to the overall degree. At Cambridge, where undergraduates are examined at the end of each part (one- or two-year section) of the Tripos, results receive different classifications for different parts.[11] The B.A. does not have a formal class;[11] however, most Cambridge graduates informally use the class of the final part as the class of the overall degree.

At some universities, candidates who successfully complete one or more years of degree-level study, but do not complete the full degree course, may be awarded a lower qualification: a Certificate of Higher Education or Higher National Certificate for one year of study, or a Diploma of Higher Education or Higher National Diploma for two years.

The Graduateship (post-nominal GCGI) and Associateship (post-nominal ACGI) awarded by the City & Guilds of London Institute are mapped to a British Honours degree.

The Engineering Council Graduate Diploma is set at the same level as the final year of a British BEng.

First-class honours

First-class honours, referred to as a "first," is the highest honours classification and indicates high academic achievement. Informally, the first-class honours degree is referred to as a "Geoff," after Geoff Hurst, or a "Damien," after Damien Hirst.[13]

In 2010 and 2011, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reported that approximately 15% of all degree candidates graduated with first-class honours.[5][14] The percentages of graduates achieving a first vary greatly by university and course studied.[15] For example, students of law are least likely to gain a first, whereas students of mathematical sciences are most likely to gain a first.[6] In 2006–2007 and 2010–2011, 5.8% and 8.1% of law students gained a first, respectively; however, in those years, 28.9% and 30.0% of mathematics students gained a first, respectively.[6]

Variations of first-class honours

A minority of universities award first-class honours with particular distinction, variously known as a "Starred First" (Cambridge), a "Congratulatory First" (Oxford), and a "First With Distinction" (York). These are seldom awarded, and typically entail the specific examination of eligible candidates. A yet rarer classification, indicating exceptional distinction, exists at Cambridge, in which a "Double-Starred First" or even "Triple-Starred First" may sometimes be awarded. (This should not be confused with "Double first-class honours".)[16]

Second-class honours

Upper second-class honours

The upper division is commonly abbreviated to "2:1" or "2.i" (pronounced two-one). The 2:1 is a minimum requirement for entry to many postgraduate courses in the U.K. It is also required for the award of a research council postgraduate studentship in the U.K., although possession of a master's degree can render a candidate eligible for an award if their first degree was below the 2:1 standard.

The percentage of candidates who achieve upper second-class honours can vary widely by degree subject, as well as by university.[14]

Lower second-class honours

This is the second division of second-class degrees and is abbreviated as "2:2" (pronounced two-two).

The lower second-class honours degree is often referred to as a "Desmond," after Desmond Tutu.[13]

Third-class honours

Third-class honours, referred to as a "third," is the lowest honours classification in most modern universities. Historically, the University of Oxford awarded fourth-class honours degrees and, until the late 1970s, did not distinguish between upper and lower second-class honours degrees.[3]

Informally, the third-class honours degree is referred to as a "Thora," after Thora Hird, or "Douglas," after Douglas Hurd.[13] It may also be known as a "Vorderman," after Carol Vorderman, the former Countdown assistant who was awarded a third-class degree by Cambridge University.[13]

Approximately 7.2% of students graduating in 2006 with an honours degree received a third-class honours.[14][17]

Ordinary degree

An ordinary, general, or pass degree can be an exit degree without honours.[18][19] It can also be a stand-alone non-honours degree such as the BA/BSc Open degree offered by the Open University (OU).[20] Many universities offer ordinary degree courses to students; however, most students enroll in honours degree courses. Some honours courses permit students who fail the first year by a small margin (around 10%) to transfer to the Ordinary degree. Ordinary degrees are sometimes awarded to honours degree students who do not complete an honours degree course to the very end, but complete enough of it to earn a pass.

Scottish universities offer three-year ordinary degrees as a qualification in their own right, as well as an honours degree over four years. This is in contrast to English universities that have honours degrees with three years of study, though a similar programme in Scotland is not unheard of, provided a student achieves a high entrance grade. An Ordinary degree from a Scottish university (also known as a "designated degree") is often sufficient to study a post-graduate course. An Ordinary degree in Scotland is not, therefore, a failed honours degree, as in certain English universities. Students can decide, usually at the end of their second or third year, whether or not they wish to complete a fourth honours year. Scottish universities may also award their ordinary degrees with "distinction" if a student achieves a particularly good grade average, usually 65% or above. A common example of a Scottish ordinary degree is the Bachelor of Laws course taken by graduates of other subjects, as this is sufficient (without honours) for entry into the legal profession.

Uncommon degree classifications

Double first-class honours

A "double first" at Oxford and Cambridge originally referred to first-class honours in two subjects in the same set of examinations, usually the Classical and Mathematical Triposes at Cambridge or the Literae Humaniores and Mathematics Final Honour Schools at Oxford. It was also possible to obtain "double firsts" in Honour Moderations.

It is (usually) no longer possible for undergraduates to read two subjects concurrently at Cambridge. The expression is used at Cambridge to describe first-class honours "in two sets of examinations corresponding to two different (sic) Parts of Triposes".[21] The two parts of a Tripos come at different points in an undergraduate's career.

At Oxford, Edinburgh and Glasgow, the term "double first" can signify that a candidate has achieved First Class Honours in both subjects of a Joint Honours degree, or in both sets of examinations of a doubly classified degree. It is sometimes used to describe first-class honours in Honour Moderations and the Final Honour School, usually in the same subject.


An aegrotat (/ˈɡrtæt/; Template:Etymology)[22] degree is an honours degree without classification or a pass degree without classification, awarded under the presumption that, had a candidate who is unable to undertake his or her exams due to illness or even death, he or she would have satisfied the standard required for that degree.[23][24][25][26][27] Aegrotat degrees are often qualified with an appended "(aegrotat)".

Following the introduction of modern regulations regarding mitigating circumstances, aegrotat degrees are less commonly awarded than they previously were.[28]

International comparisons

An approximate mapping between British classifications and US Grade Point Averages can be inferred from the University College London (UCL) graduate admissions criteria.[29] Canadian GPAs differ. The British Graduate Admissions Fact Sheet from McGill University states that, in their system, where standings are reported in lieu of an average, a CGPA (cumulative grade point average) is determined.[30] However, different universities convert grades differently. UCL's system is at odds with London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) which, for example, considers a GPA (U.S.) of 3.5 as equivalent to a 2.1.[31] Also, most Oxbridge departments consider a 3.75 the equivalent of a First. (See, for instance, English Language and Literature postgraduate requirements at Oxford.)[32]

Grade equivalents given by World Education Services (WES),[33] which provide qualification conversion services to many universities, also convert British degrees to higher GPAs than the conversion used by UCL, if the guidelines for converting grades to GPA given by Duke University[34] are used. Interestingly, this conversion is very similar to that given by WES and Duke, and that used by LSE and Oxbridge. Furthermore, the grade conversion from Fulbright Commission states that the equivalent of 70+ in the United Kingdom is a 4.0 U.S. GPA.[35]

The Fullbright Commission created the table below as "an unofficial chart with approximate grade conversions between U.K. results and U.S. GPA." It should be noted that there is no hard and fast rule of converting the degrees, because different institutions compare differently. This is especially true in other countries where the highest scale is different, like 4.3 or 4.5 GPA. Such countries applying 4.5 GPA as the highest, for example, can convert a First as equivalent to 4.5 GPA, a 2.1 as equivalent to above 3.8 GPA, a 2.2 as equivalent to 3.2~3.8 GPA, and a Third as equivalent to 2.6~3.2 GPA.

British Class American GPA Secured Marks Level
First 3.68–4.00 70+
Upper Second 3.33–3.67 60–69
Lower Second 3.00–3.32 50–59
Third 2.50–2.99 45–49
Ordinary Pass 2.00–2.49 40–44
US GPA equivalent from The Fulbright Commission[35]

BA (Hons) degrees attained in the U.K. are at the level of National Qualifications Framework (NQF) 6 – where the BA and Honours degrees exist. MA degrees are at NQF 7 and PhD degrees are at level NQF 8. Other countries, specifically South Africa, equate different NQF levels to degrees. For instance, a master's degree in South Africa is at NQF 9, while a doctoral degree is at NQF 10. The reason for this difference in NQF levels is that South Africa requires students to undertake a fourth year, or an honours degree, between their bachelor's and master's degrees.

The South African Qualifications Accreditation company (SAQA) compares international degrees with local degrees before any international student continues their studies in that country. While the British degree accreditation and classification system allows students to go straight from a three-year bachelor's degree onto a master's degree, South Africa does not do so, unless the student has proven research capabilities. South African Honours degrees prepare the students to undertake a research-specific degree (in terms of master's), by spending an in-depth year (up to 5 modules) creating research proposals and undertaking a research project of limited scope. This prepares students for the research degrees later in their academic career.

Progression to postgraduate study

Regulations governing the progression of undergraduate degree graduates to postgraduate programmes vary among universities, and are often flexible. A candidate for a postgraduate master's degree is usually required to have at least a 2:2 degree, although candidates with 2:1s are in a considerably stronger position to gain a place in a postgraduate course and to obtain funding, especially in medical and natural sciences. Some institutions specify a 2:1 minimum for certain types of master's program, such as for a Master of Research course.[36][37]

Candidates with a Third, or Ordinary, degree are sometimes accepted, provided they have acquired satisfactory professional experience subsequent to graduation. A candidate for a doctoral programme who does not hold a master's degree is nearly always required to have a First or 2:1.


International degrees


Some universities, such as those in Australia, offer ordinary or pass degrees, (for instance, as a three-year B.A. or a three-year BSc) by default. High-achieving students may be recognised with an honours classification without further coursework or research, as is often the case in engineering, which often contains a research and thesis component,[38][39] or law.[40] However, other courses (such as humanities, arts, social sciences, and sciences) and other universities may recognise high-achieving students with an honours classification with further coursework or research, undertaken either concurrently with, and as part of or in addition to, a bachelor's course,[41] or after completion of a bachelor's course requirements and attaining adequately competitive grades.[42][43] Some graduate degrees have been or are classified;[44] however, under the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF), no graduate-level degrees (i.e., master's by coursework, master's by research, or higher research degrees) may be classified. To comply with this standard, some institutions have commenced, or will commence, offering high-achieving graduates with "distinction".[45] Notably, this is consistent with British graduate degree classification.[46]

British medical and dental degrees

In the United Kingdom, medicine is taught as an undergraduate course and, upon successful completion of the course, the graduate holds the conjoined degrees of Bachelor of Medicine, and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS, BM BCh or MB ChB; "chirurgery" is a variant of the Latin chirurgiae, meaning "hand work," i.e., surgery); in some cases, Bachelor in the Art of Obstetrics (BAO) is added to the formal name of these degrees. The BAO is a tradition of Irish universities, and so only the Queen's University Belfast gives a BAO in addition to the bachelors of medicine and surgery in the U.K. Universities in the Republic of Ireland also present a BAO to graduates. However, unlike most undergraduate degrees, MBBS is not awarded in classes (i.e., there are no first, second or third class honours MBBS degrees).

Individual degrees are marked as pass or fail, with some universities also awarding passes with merit. Results of final examinations in fourth or fifth year split the year groups into one of 10 deciles. These deciles allocate base points for their Foundation Programme (previously known as house officer) job applications where the top decile awards the most points, decreasing by a point for each decile. Distinctions can be awarded for certain parts of the course to the best students (who will usually have several merits already). Honours are awarded at some institutions for exceptional performance throughout the course, as well as a medal sometimes for the most outstanding degree candidates in medicine or dentistry.


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