UK Universities: A Dictionary For Parents

If you’re a parent helping your child to apply to university in the UK, you will be all too aware of the numerous unique terms, acronyms and phrases involved in the whole process. 

Regardless of how many years have passed since you attended university yourself (or if it’s your first encounter with the world of Higher Education), you certainly won’t be the first parent who has felt in need of a translator at some point on the application journey.  

Can’t make it to an Open Day to find answers to your questions? Worry not! Our team of Higher Education experts has to come to the rescue and put together this handy dictionary to help you navigate the nuances of university vocabulary in the UK. 

Read it carefully and get ready to impress your child and the other parents with your insider knowledge.


A Levels: The common name for the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level certificate (GCE A level), a high school qualification studied in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by pre-university students. They are available in many subjects and take two years to complete. Three A-levels are often used to meet university entrance requirements. 

BA: Short for Bachelor of Arts. A type of undergraduate degree awarded for studying an arts related subject. Find out more about choosing a university course here

BEng: Short for Bachelor of Engineering. A type of undergraduate degree awarded specifically for studying engineering.

BSc: Short for Bachelor of Science. A type of undergraduate degree awarded for studying a science related subject.

Bursary: A sum of money given to a student (by the government, the university itself, or another external body) to help with the cost of their course. It’s similar to a scholarship, and is usually awarded on a need-assessed basis. Find more information on funding higher education here

Campus: The university or college grounds. Note – not all universities in the UK are ‘campus’ universities, as some have buildings and facilities spread all across the town. 

Clearing: Process allowing applicants with no offers of places on degree programmes to join courses at institutions with vacancies shortly before the start of the academic year. Begins mid-August each year.

Conditional Offer: An offer made to you to join a degree course which requires you to meet certain criteria – normally to achieve certain exam results. An unconditional offer is sometimes made instead, which does not require you to meet any further criteria. 

Degree Classes (1st, 2.1, 2.2, 3rd): These are the ‘honours grades’ given to students who complete their university courses. A ‘First’ is the highest, and a Third the lowest. Most employers ask for a 2.1 (or 2.i) or above. 

Dissertation: A research project forming part of some degree courses. Can also sometimes be called a thesis. It’s normally a longer written piece focusing on a topic of the student’s own choosing.


Foundation course: This is a preparatory course which allows students who do not have the required entry qualifications to study for a year and then enter into the first year of some undergraduate courses. It can also be called a foundation programme or a foundation year.

Foundation degree: This is a two year work-related qualification which focuses on practical knowledge and skills and includes work experience in a particular industry.

Freshers Week: Your ‘Fresher’ year is the first year of an undergraduate degree, and ‘Freshers Week’ is the first week of the first term. Usually, it involves many introductory events and social gatherings. 

Gap Year: A year taken by students between secondary education and degree study. Some opt to spend this time gaining work experience or travelling.

GCSEs: Standing for ‘General Certificate of Secondary Education’, these are exams taken by 16-year-old students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

Halls: Short for ‘Halls of Residence’, this term refers to the accommodation that university students are offered. Usually, students are grouped into flats with shared kitchens and bathrooms. 

IB Diploma: The International Baccalaureate Diploma is a two year course offered instead of A Levels in Europe and some UK schools. 

IELTS: The International English Language Testing System is an international standardised test of English language proficiency for non-native English language speakers. It is jointly managed by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia and Cambridge Assessment English. Available worldwide, and one of the most widely accepted qualifications in the English language.


Joint Honours: If you take a JH course, you combine two subjects into one qualification. Common examples are Drama and English, or Business and Economics. 

MA: Short for Master of Arts. A type of postgraduate degree awarded for studying an arts related subject.

MBA: Short for Master of Business Administration. A type of postgraduate degree awarded specifically for studying business administration.

MSc: Short for Master of Science. A type of postgraduate degree awarded for studying a science related subject.

Maintenance Loan: A sum of money loaned by Student Finance to support students’ living costs. Learn more about the costs of university education in the UK here

Open Day: An event hosted by the university to explain more about studying there, the courses on offer and the facilities available. In 2021, many universities are offering virtual online open days alongside or instead of in-person events. You normally need to register for an open day in advance, and details can be found on each university’s website. Learn more here. 

Oxbridge: This term refers jointly to Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Personal Statement: Part of the application process. Find everything you need to know about Personal Statements here

Postgraduate: A postgraduate degree is a further qualification studied after the completion of your undergraduate degree. 

Russell Group: Representing the most prestigious and well-respected UK universities, the Russell Group is a self-selected association of twenty-four public research universities in the United Kingdom.


Student Finance: A service through which university students access their loans. Learn more about the costs of university education in the UK here.

Students’ Union: A student union represents the student body in the university. The term may also refer to a central building which houses facilities for students. 

TOEFL: Short for Test of English as a Foreign Language. A test to measure a student’s English language ability.

Turing Scheme: This scheme replaced Erasmus+ in 2021 for UK students. It offers funding for students wishing to study or undertake placements around the world. Find out more about the scheme here.

UCAS: Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. This organisation handles all applications for full-time undergraduate courses in the UK. 

Undergraduate: An undergraduate degree is your first degree (often called a bachelor’s degree). An undergraduate is a person studying for an undergraduate degree. 

Year Abroad: Many universities offer students the opportunity to study in a partner university abroad for one year as part of their degree. Courses offering this as an option usually make this clear in their prospectus or in the course module information on their website. Find out more about choosing a university course here.

Any further questions for our higher education experts? Ask away!

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If you’re looking for further advice and support with university applications, head to our blog

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