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  • Maria Cristina Brodu

The UK and European framework of higher education qualifications (tertiary education after A-levels)

The UK tertiary education framework aligns with the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area (QF-EHEA). I describe here the capabilities that are associated with each level of tertiary education, know as Bologna Process Cycles.

Screening interviews are common in the UK: the "walk me through your CV" chats that are conducted by staff who normally has at most secondary education, and decides about presenting the CV to experienced recruiters, or employers' directors, partners and C-suite.

In my view, those who conducted my "CV screenings" had most often little understanding of the capabilities that are developed at each stage of higher education at University level, and about what differentiate graduate and postgraduate work experience from their own.

Understanding the framework of higher education in the UK and EU, and the skills that are built by completing each tertiary education cycle, can help to best assess potential.

The 1st cycle corresponds to undergraduate qualifications (typically University's bachelor's degrees of 3 or 4 full time years) and the 2nd and 3rd cycles correspond to postgraduate qualifications (typically University's master's degrees of 2 FT years, and doctoral studies).

The confusion mostly springs from the fact that some universities offer 'combined cycles' degrees: for example, in Italy a professional degree in medicine is a 6 years combined 1st and 2nd cycle degree; architectural engineering the same in 5 years.

Doctoral studies often combine a 2nd and 3rd cycle in the USA, therefore they last 5 years and can be started after a 3-4 years bachelor's degree. But in Italy, a PhD can only be started after a 2nd cycle degree (a 2 years master's degree), so it takes 3 extra years.

I describe here to follow the skills and abilities associated with each cycle completion


  • apply their knowledge and understanding in a manner that indicates a professional approach to their work or vocation

  • competences that are demonstrated by devising and sustaining arguments and solving problems

  • ability to gather and interpret relevant data to inform judgements, including reflection on social, scientific, ethical issues

  • communicate information, ideas, problems and solutions to both specialist and non-specialist audiences

  • developed learning skills that are necessary for them to undertake further study [or work] with a high degree of autonomy


  • apply their knowledge and understanding, and problem solving abilities in new or unfamiliar environments within broader (or multidisciplinary) contexts related to their field of study

  • ability to integrate knowledge and handle complexity, and formulate judgements with incomplete or limited information, but that include reflecting on social and ethical responsibilities linked to it

  • communicate their conclusions, and the knowledge and rationale underpinning these, to specialist and non-specialist audiences clearly and unambiguously

  • learning skills to allow them to continue to study [or work] in a manner that may be largely self-directed or autonomous.


  • ability to conceive, design, implement and adapt a substantial process of research

  • make contributions through original research [or work] that extends the frontier of knowledge by developing a substantial body of work

  • capable of critical analysis, evaluation and synthesis of new and complex idea, to communicate with their peers and with society

  • promote, within academic and professional contexts, technological, social or cultural advancement in a knowledge-based society.

Usually a 2nd cycle qualified can have the same ability of a 3rd cycle one, if the 2nd cycle qualification is achieved in association to 3+ years of relevant work experience (according to the 'advanced study degree criteria' for master’s degrees holders, in hiring settings).

Above: left to right, Nari Yoon, Debashree Pal and Maria Cristina Brodu graduation in 2012


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