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Higher education courses and powers to award degrees

'Higher education' broadly means education that leads to a degree. However, a more comprehensive list of higher education courses is provided in Schedule 6 to the Education Reform Act 1988. This list is commonly referred to in statutory definitions of 'higher education', for example section 579 of the Education Act 1996.

The courses listed in paragraph 1 of Schedule 6 to the Education Reform Act 1988 are:

  • a course for the further training of teachers or youth and community workers;
  • a first degree course;
  • a post-graduate course (including a higher degree course);
  • a course for the Diploma of Higher Education;
  • a course for the Higher National Diploma or Higher National Certificate of the Business & Technician Education Council, or the Diploma in Management Studies;
  • a course for the Certificate in Education;
  • a course in preparation for a professional examination at higher level (a professional examination is at higher level if its standard is higher than the standard of examinations at advanced level for the General Certificate of Education or the examination for the National Certificate or the National Diploma of the Business & Technician Education Council);
  • a course providing education at a higher level, whether or not in preparation for an examination (a course is to be regarded as providing education at a higher level if its standard is higher than the standard of courses providing education in preparation for any of the examinations mentioned in the point above).

Although most higher education courses in Wales are provided by higher education institutions (more commonly known as universities), further education institutions are also able to offer courses of higher education under section 18 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. Schools may also provide higher education courses of a description falling under the last two bullet points above under section 28A of the Education Act 2002.

While a variety of educational institutions might be able to offer higher education courses, only those institutions authorised by the Privy Council are able to award degrees.

Under section 76 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, the Privy Council can specify by order that an institution that provides higher education is competent to award taught and/or research degrees, along with diplomas, certificates and other academic awards. A higher education institution authorised in this way can in turn authorise another institution to grant the awards on its behalf.

It is an offence for a business to purport to award degrees without this authorisation (see section 21 of the Education Reform Act 1988) unless the award granted has been designated as a ‘recognised award’ by the Secretary of State or the Welsh Ministers.

A list of ‘recognised awards’ is set out in the Education (Recognised Awards) Order 1988 (SI 1988/2035) and includes:

  • Degree of the Utter Bar awarded by the Inns of Court;
  • Master of Horticulture awarded by the Royal Horticultural Society;
  • Mastership in Chemical Analysis awarded by the Royal Society of Chemistry;
  • Mastership in Clinical Biochemistry awarded jointly by the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal College of Pathologists and the Association of Clinical Biochemists;
  • Mastership in Food Control awarded jointly by the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Biology and the Institute of Food Science and Technology;
  • Degree of Barrister-at-Law awarded by Benchers of the Honourable Society of the Inn of Court of Northern Ireland.

Provided the correct authorisations are in place, it will then be for the institution in question, in accordance with its instrument and articles of government, to determine the course of study and assessments that a student is required to complete for an award to be granted. However, it should be noted that if a course is intended to lead to a professional qualification then some oversight or authorisation of the course may be required and additional standards may need to be met. For example, for a university to offer examinations to qualify for a licence in dentistry the university will have to be appropriately designated and the course and examinations may be assessed in accordance with the Dentists Act 1984.

The quality of courses of education provided by publicly funded higher education institutions in Wales is assessed under arrangements made by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales under section 70 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. Once the Higher Education (Wales) Act 2015 is commenced, HEFCW will be under a duty to assess the quality of education provided in Wales (by regulated institutions) according to the provisions of this Act. HEFCW will be able to direct institutions in respect of inadequate quality and to issue guidance about improving or maintaining the quality of education provided.

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