Economics in UK Higher Education
This guide aims to give a brief overview of the UK Higher Education sector with a specific focus on the teaching of economics. It also aims to provide key information about career progression, training and reward.
UK Higher Education
Higher Education (HE) in the UK has a long history with Oxford and Cambridge universities dating from the 12th and 13th centuries and St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen dating from the 15th century. As of 2019, there are 170 higher education institutions across the UK which can award first degrees (GOV.UK, 2021) and 2.3 million students (Universities UK, 2018).
Accreditation, funding and regulation
The UK comprises 4 nations – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – each of which fund higher education through their own funding and regulation bodies:
- The Office for Students (replacing The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) which was abolished at the end of March 2018)
- The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW)
- The Scottish Funding Council (SFC)
- Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland
Quality assurance standards for HE are monitored and advised by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for the whole of the UK. The QAA's services include:
- The Quality Code (revised version 2018), developed with the sector, which provides guidance to those developing programmes of study and policies on academic standards.
- Part of the Quality Code is the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies, which defines the UK qualification system and describes the generic requirements for each level/qualification. This describes the two parallel frameworks for higher education qualifications of UK degree-awarding bodies: the Framework for Qualifications of Higher Education Institutions in Scotland (FQHEIS) and, for the rest of the UK, the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications of Degree-Awarding Bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (FHEQ).
- Further guidance including other education sectors and qualifications in the UK nations and the Republic of Ireland can be found in the QAA’s Qualifications Can Cross Boundaries - A Rough Guide to Comparing Qualifications in the UK and Ireland.
- Subject Benchmark Statements which set out the skills and knowledge that graduates are expected to have at the end of their degrees. The Economics Subject Benchmark Statement was last updated in 2023.
- Review of HE providers to assess how and whether they meet the standards of the UK HE sector.
Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)
The Teaching Excellence Framework was established by government in 2015 to evaluate the quality of the undergraduate student experience in UK HE institutions. It aims to provide comparable information about universities beyond existing quality assurance systems (such as QAA review), ultimately allowing institutions to increase their student tuition fees according to how highly they are rated.
Participation is optional across the UK, though HE institutions in England that have a TEF award can increase their student fees in line with inflation (up to £9,250 in 2023). Participation in TEF by institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has no direct impact on their student fees.
Each institution is judged by an independent panel of students, academics and other experts. The panel bases their judgement on a written statement from the institution and a combination of institutional data including student satisfaction, employment outcomes, and how many students continue their study from one year to the next. Judgements currently result in a ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’ or ‘Bronze’ badge.
Typical higher education qualifications within each level
|Qualification level||Further information||FHEQ||FQHEIS|
|FHEQ level||SCQF level (Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework)|
|Doctoral degrees (e.g., PhD/DPhil, EdD, DBA, DClinPsy)||A doctorate is the next (and highest) qualification in the UK, usually taking three to four years to complete.|
|Master’s degrees (e.g., MPhil, MRes, MA, MSc)||Master's degrees are either four year degree courses (often sandwich courses involving one year in industry or abroad) or a one year course after completion of an undergraduate degree.|
|Integrated master’s degrees (e.g., MEng, MChem)|
|Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE)|
|Bachelor’s degrees with honours (e.g. BA/BSc Hons)|
Bachelor's degrees with honours are typically four years in Scotland but three years in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The four year course in Scotland allows students from Scottish schools who usually sit Highers aged 16/17 (as opposed to GCE A-levels aged 17/18 in England, Northern Ireland and Wales) to progress to university receiving a broader based education in the first two years, and then specialising in the final two.
A combined or joint honours bachelor’s degree is a degree where two or more subjects are studied from different areas (e.g. Economics and Business). A combined degree is the same level of qualification as a single honours degree.
Bachelor's degrees with honours are typically four years in Scotland but three years in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
|Professional Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland|
|Graduate diplomas, Graduate certificates|
|Foundation degrees (eg, FdA, FdSc)||Usually 2 years to complete.|
|Diplomas of Higher Education (DipHE)|
|Higher National Diplomas (HND) awarded by degree-awarding bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland|
|Higher National Certificates (HNC) awarded by degree-awarding bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland||Usually one year to complete|
|Certificates of Higher Education (CertHE)|
Table adapted from the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (QAA, 2014)
Some higher education institutions use qualifications and grades as part of their student entry requirements for undergraduate degrees – many use UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) tariff points, which are allocated to qualifications generally studied between the ages of 16 to 18 (including A-levels and Scottish Highers).
Some economics undergraduate degree courses require A-level Maths, but most do not. Virtually all require GCSE Maths at grade C or B. No course requires A-level Economics. On some economics degree courses students are streamed in the first year according to their background in Maths and/or Economics.
Student fees in the UK vary according to each student’s home nation/region and where in the UK they are studying:
|Student's home region||Studying in England||Studying in Scotland||Studying in Wales||Studying in Northern Ireland|
|England||Up to £9,250||Up to £9,250||Up to £9,000||Up to £9,250|
|Scotland||Up to £9,250||No fee||Up to £9,000||Up to £9,250|
|Wales||Up to £9,250||Up to £9,250||Up to £9,000||Up to £9,250|
|Northern Ireland||Up to £9,250||Up to £9,250||Up to £9,000||Up to £4,395|
|EU and other international||Variable||Variable||Variable||Variable|
Generally students take out student loans or grants to pay for university. These are usually from devolved government agencies. EU students are also eligible for UK student loans.
Training, reward and recognition
Each institution will have a policy on career progression – many have generic academic job descriptions along different career pathways – for example teaching only, research only, teaching and research. Progression will depend on your role as well as evidence of your expertise.
In terms of teaching expertise, most HE institutions have central academic/teaching development units which can guide and support staff in their teaching development, reward and recognition.
New lecturer training
Since 2001, all new lecturers to UK higher education are required to undertake institutional training to prepare them for their teaching (Department of Education and Skills, 2003). Many run postgraduate certificate programmes.
129 institutions (Pilkington, 2017) also run Continuing Professional Development (CPD) schemes accredited to the UK Professional Standards Framework – a national teaching standard developed by the sector and currently overseen by Advance HE. Staff can be recognised through these CPD schemes (or directly with the HEA where no scheme exists) at various categories of HEA Fellowship: Associate Fellow; Fellow; Senior Fellow and Principal Fellow.
New lecturers are generally expected to gain HEA Fellowship (Fellow category) – normally through the institution's accredited postgraduate certificate programme or CPD scheme. Postgraduates who teach are often expected to gain Associate Fellowship through an accredited CPD scheme or by direct application.
Economics New Lecturer Training
The Economics Network’s Early Careers Workshop is a two-day event focused on effective and innovative economics teaching. It has been developed in consultation with a network of experienced economics lecturers from across the UK. The workshop aligns with the UK Professional Standards Framework and has been formally endorsed by the Royal Economic Society and the Scottish Economic Society.
National Teaching Fellowships
Many institutions offer internal Teaching Awards (sometimes student-nominated). In England institutions can put forward up to three members of staff annually forward to compete for a National Teaching Fellowship (55 currently awarded annually).
Department of Education and Skills. (2003). The future of higher education (Vol. 3). London. DOI: 10.1007/BF00168212
GOV.UK. (2021). Recognised bodies. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
Pilkington, R. (2017). Summary report Annual Review of HEA accredited CPD schemes 2015-16.
QAA. (2018). UK Quality Code, (revised version, March 2018).
Universities UK. (2018). Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education. London.
UCAS (2023) "Undergraduate tuition fees and student loans"Back to top