Undergraduate, postgraduate – what’s the difference?

One of the curiosities of my education was that I completed my first postgraduate degree before I completed an undergraduate one. If I were to write about that in any detail, it would be too mind-numbingly boring, so just a very brief explanation: my undergraduate degree was a BA in Law, and the notionally postgraduate degree I was doing, the LLB (Bachelor in Law), could at the time be studied alongside the BA. And that year, the LLB exams took place a few weeks before the BA exams. I told you the reason was boring.

So I graduated with two degrees at the same time, and stuck them both behind my name with hardly a hint of shame at this maybe rather doubtful practice. A couple of years later I had my PhD, so it didn’t matter much any more.

The LLB of that day was a most confusing thing. It had an undergraduate title but was, at least technically, a postgraduate degree; in that it aped its namesake in Cambridge, or the BCL in Oxford. Its syllabus – well, I’m not sure you could say it had a syllabus, as the BA lectures doubled up for the LLB – was hardly a postgraduate one. And the whole thing was corrected a few years later when the LLB became the primary undergraduate law degree of that university.

If I had wanted to study law in the United States, it would have been rather different: I would have had to study for an unrelated undergraduate degree first, and then pursued my law studies at a postgraduate level, generally leading to the Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree, which while labelled a doctoral degree is overwhelmingly not considered to be one.

And if I had studied any subject at all in Germany, it would have been hard to say whether what I was doing was undergraduate or postgraduate or some sort of seamless transition between the two.

Perhaps encouraged by the Bologna process, we have begun to look more systematically at this. It is not that we need to be pedantic or bureaucratic about it all, rather we need to have a clear sense of what we are doing pedagogically. We need to understand what standards and methodologies separate the different levels of degree programmes. We may also need to consider the significance (if any) of the different lengths of degree programmes culminating in the same award – some universities in Britain and Ireland have three-year undergraduate degree programmes, and some have four-year ones.

We also need to address the question whether it is appropriate to study a vocational subject – such as law, accounting and medicine – at undergraduate level at all, or whether this should be done exclusively at postgraduate level.

There is of course a strong case to be made for diversity of mission, purpose and method between different universities, and it would not be difficult to stifle that by adopting too strict a classification for all this. But equally there needs to be an equivalence, with respect for that diversity of content and method, of standards. We need to make it possible for our students and other stakeholders to understand what it means when we provide either undergraduate or postgraduate degree programmes, and for the standards set for each to be verifiable.

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3 Comments on “Undergraduate, postgraduate – what’s the difference?”

  1. ultan Says:

    Please don’t tell us you ever considered paying the TCD “Upgrade Version” price to convert the B.A. into an M.A…

  2. Wendymr Says:

    It could be worse: I know at least one Oxbridge graduate who was ‘given’ his MA upgrade in return for promising to turn up and cast a vote.


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