What Is a Third Class Degree?

A Third Class Degree, also known as a “Third” or 3rd, is the lowest honours classification awarded by most modern universities in the UK. Students who achieve between 40-50% in their finals receive a Third Class degree. But what exactly does this qualification mean and what are the implications of graduating with a Third? This comprehensive guide examines all you need to know about Third Class degrees.

What is a Third Class Honours Degree?

A Third Class honours degree is the lowest of the three pass grades awarded for bachelor’s degrees with honours in the UK. The other two classifications are:

  • First Class Honours (70% and above)
  • Second Class Honours
    • Upper division or 2:1 (60-69%)
    • Lower division or 2:2 (50-59%)

The Third Class honours degree lies between 40-49% and indicates the minimum satisfactory standard for an honours degree. Historically, the University of Oxford awarded Fourth Class Honours degrees and did not distinguish between upper and lower Second Class Honours until the late 1970s.

When was the Third Class Degree Introduced?

The concept of classifying bachelor’s degrees originated in the 19th century at Oxford and Cambridge universities. However, the exact classifications and percentages associated with each have evolved over time.

The Third Class Honours came into formal existence in 1887 as a result of reforms in the University of London external examination system. This three-tier degree classification structure was subsequently adopted by other British universities.

Why is a Third Class Degree Called a “Gentleman’s Degree”?

A Third Class degree is sometimes referred to as a “gentleman’s degree” in Britain. This nickname emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when university education was predominantly limited to men of privileged backgrounds.

Many such students came from elite social classes and had the luxury of time to participate in extracurricular activities. They often pursued degrees as a matter of prestige rather than academic achievement. Thus, the “gentleman’s degree” stereotype arose for students who did just enough to graduate respectably without exerting themselves excessively.

The association of Third Class degrees with mediocre effort from privileged males has rendered the “gentleman’s degree” label outdated today. Universities now have diverse student demographics, and varying personal circumstances can impact academic performance. Still, the legacy nickname endures in British cultural consciousness.

What Percentage of Students Get a Third Class Degree?

The proportion of students graduating with Third Class Honours has fluctuated over the past few decades. Here are some key statistics:

  • In 2006, approximately 7.2% of students graduating with an honours degree in the UK received a Third.
  • By 2011, this figure rose to 12.1% across all subjects.
  • In 2016, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reported 8.5% of graduates earned Thirds.
  • Data from 2018 showed 11.4% of honours degree students graduated with Third Class.
  • The latest 2019-2020 figures indicate 9.9% of graduates received a Third.

So while the percentages vary year-to-year, roughly 1 in 10 students graduates with Third Class Honours in recent times.

However, there are significant variations across subjects and universities. Generally, humanities and social science programs have a higher proportion of Thirds compared to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects.

The Guardian’s 2021 university guide found huge discrepancies between top-ranking institutions. For instance, just 4.6% of Oxford’s graduates earned Thirds whereas 23.1% of Bradford’s did. So the university itself impacts these percentages.

Why Do Students Get a Third Class Degree?

There are many potential reasons why a student might graduate with a Third, including:

1. Weaker Academic Performance

Naturally, students who earn lower marks and grades throughout their three years at university are more likely to end up with a Third. Consistent scores between 40-50% will make it mathematically impossible to reach the 50-60% required for a 2:2.

Weak academic performance can stem from lack of capability, insufficient effort, inadequate preparation, poor time management, or other skills deficits.

2. Illness and Personal Issues

For some students, extenuating personal circumstances like physical or mental health problems, family emergencies, or bereavement can severely impact studies and exam performance. Universities do offer extenuating circumstances procedures, but students still sometimes end up with a Third due to poor results affected by issues outside their control.

3. Difficulty Adapting to University Life

The transition from school to university can prove challenging for some students. Failure to adapt to the more independent learning environment and develop key academic skills like critical thinking, time management, referencing, research, and essay writing can negatively affect grades.

4. Loss of Motivation

Losing interest and motivation levels in a chosen degree subject area is another potential contributor to gaining a Third. Students may struggle through with diminishing effort and disengagement in finals year resulting in poorer outcomes.

5. Pressure of Juggling Work and Studies

An increasing number of students now work part-time jobs alongside full-time studies to fund living costs. Juggling the demands of paid work with academic pressures can result in students prioritising work over studies to make ends meet financially. This can detract from academic performance and attention.

What are the Prospects with a Third Class Degree? Can You Still Get a Good Job?

A Third Class honours degree is enough to graduate and obtain bachelor’s degree status. However, the job and further study prospects are more limited compared to higher classifications.

Employment Prospects

  • Challenging job market – Gaining graduate employment with a Third Class degree is competitive. Employers often use degree classifications as a filtering mechanism when selecting candidates. Applicants with 2:1s and 1sts are prioritised for the most coveted roles and companies.
  • Limits options – While not impossible, obtaining places on competitive graduate schemes with elite employers gets much tougher with a Third. Applicants have to work harder to stand out and sell themselves to employers.
  • Consider SMEs and new startups – Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and startups offer viable options, as they focus less on academic credentials. The ability to demonstrate skills, ambition and cultural fit matters more.
  • Highlight experience – Compensate for lower grades by highlighting work experience, internships, extracurricular activities, voluntary work, and transferable skills developed at university. These aspects often appeal more to employers than grades alone.
  • Additional qualifications – Gaining vocational qualifications and professional certifications in areas like digital marketing, human resources, project management, coding, and data analytics can strengthen employability.
  • Network and use contacts – Leverage networks and university career services to uncover unadvertised opportunities. Speculative applications and informational interviews can unlock openings.

Overall, landing that first graduate job takes persistence and a proactive approach with a Third, but is achievable with the right strategy. Once in the door and armed with that initial experience, future jobseeking prospects start to even out compared to higher classified graduates.

Postgraduate Study Prospects

Gaining acceptance onto competitive postgraduate courses like masters degrees or PhD programs is also more difficult with a Third Class undergraduate degree.

  • UK universities – Most UK universities require minimum of a 2:2 for admission to masters programs. Exceptions can be made for mature students or those with significant work experience.
  • Overseas – Third Class degrees almost always prohibit progression to postgraduate study in countries like the US, Canada, Australia where higher undergraduate GPAs are expected.
  • Consider foundation programs – One-year postgraduate foundation or conversion courses that don’t require prior qualifications offer backdoor access to masters. They enable students to demonstrate academic capabilities.
  • Alternative PG options – Less competitive professional qualifications like postgraduate certificates and diplomas may offer alternative continuing study options in some subject areas.

Overall, graduating with a Third Class degree does limit postgraduate academic options. However, it is not always the end of the road for further study with careful planning and a strategic approach.

Can You Upgrade a Third Class Degree?

It is typically not possible to directly “upgrade” an existing Third to a higher honours classification. The bachelor’s degree award is final once conferred at graduation. However, there are a few potential routes to take to improve prospects:

1. Complete a Conversion Masters

One-year postgraduate conversion master’s degrees allow non-traditional graduates or career changers to gain a masters qualification in a new field. Admission does not depend on undergraduate grades.

Successful completion then enables application to more specialized masters programs that do require a minimum 2:2 bachelors. This acts as an indirect upgrade pathway.

2. Take Additional Undergraduate Courses

Some universities offer single undergraduate-level courses through continuing education or professional development programs.

Successfully passing several individual modules related to the original degree subject can demonstrate improved academic abilities to employers and postgrad admissions teams.

3. Consider an Accelerated Second Bachelors

It is possible to pursue an accelerated 2nd bachelors degree in just two years at some institutions. This provides an opportunity to gain a degree unhindered by past performance issues and reset academic credentials.

4. Complete a PhD as a Mature Student

Applying for PhD study as a mature student with work experience may bypass need for high undergraduate grades at some universities. The research proposal and interview performance become more important.

In general, the emphasis when aiming to upgrade from a Third is to find ways to prove academic capacity and redeem oneself academically in the eyes of gatekeepers.

Are Third Class Degrees Going to Be Phased Out or Abolished?

There has been some speculation and debate around phasing out Third Class degrees amid concerns about their effects on graduate prospects.

In 2021, UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson stated he would be “driving towards” removing the Third Class degree classification over the next decade. This indicates a gradual phase-out may occur but is not guaranteed yet.

Some have argued Thirds should be scrapped more swiftly. Critics highlight that graduates face a limited job market and obstacles to further study from the classification.

Others contend that removing the lower benchmark of Third Class degrees could lead to grade inflation as universities relax standards to award more higher classes. This could devalue the overall bachelor’s degree.

There are also calls to supplement degree classifications with grade point averages (GPAs) to provide added nuance and context rather than just categorizing students into broad classes.

For now, the Third Class degree remains despite uncertainties over its long-term future in UK higher education. Universities continue awarding them for the time being.


In summary, a Third Class or 3rd is the lowest honours degree classification awarded by UK universities today. Approximately 1 in 10 graduates achieve Third Class Honours representing the minimum acceptable standard for a bachelor’s degree.

While a reputed “gentleman’s degree” historically, the Third Class is now more commonly obtained due to extenuating circumstances or academic difficulties at university. The classification severely limits graduate job and further study options compared to higher degrees.

Nonetheless, all is not lost for Third Class graduates. With careful positioning, planning, and persistence, it is still possible to carve out rewarding careers and further education. And while complete “upgrades” are not feasible, alternative pathways exist to enhance prospects for those unsatisfied with settling for a Third.

The Third Class honours degree has survived over a century but its relevance is under renewed scrutiny. Its long-term future remains uncertain as UK higher education continues debating its merits and downsides. For now, it remains a staple classification and a milestone for those who overcome its associated challenges


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