See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_American_and_British_English#university

"She read biology at Cambridge." That doesn't mean 'she read a book or something about biology at Cambridge'?

closed as general reference by FumbleFingers, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者, Kristina Lopez, Robusto, MetaEd Apr 3 '13 at 2:46

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  • 5
    I don't think it was ever synonymous with majored, since in my understanding you can only major in a single subject at university. In that sense, I majored in English Literature, but I also read (formally studied as part of a degree course) English Language, French Language, French Literature, and Linguistics. And if you watch BBC University Challenge you'll see that when introducing themselves, most contestants say they are reading (some subject). So yes - the meaning is still current. – FumbleFingers Apr 2 '13 at 4:20
  • Definition 13 at: oald8.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/dictionary/read – MetaEd Apr 3 '13 at 2:46

That doesn't mean 'she read a book or something about biology at Cambridge'?

No, it certainly relates to the overall course of study at a particular University. Any particular degree programme which one might read would be comprised of one or more modules (lecture courses, individual dissertations, seminars, etc.), with the institution laying down particular requirements for a degree to be conferred.

The concept of "majoring" is rarely considered in the UK; for one, the University system and the requirements for the courses offered for study are very different to most US colleges, and one does not typically describe themselves as having majored in a particular subject area. In particular, most UK universities have no set requirement for "coursework" or "general study" in the first year or two; rather, specialisation in a particular topic area occurs at the beginning, because the enrolment process to University forces a student to nominate their desired area of study. This remains the same for three, sometimes four*, years.

In addition, the term "read" would typically be reserved for those who have completed a course of study at one of the so-called red brick Universities. Many other Universities exist which converted from polytechnics a while back, but most speakers of British English would not use the term "read" to refer to studying a course at one of those institutions. However, for Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and so on, it is certainly appropriate terminology which is in common use.

While the above is the "norm", the specifics regarding usage of this terminology will, of course, vary from person to person.

4 year undergraduate courses are now becoming common, which award a joint Bachelor and Masters' degree after the 4 years of study. This is more common in the sciences than arts, where three years is often insufficient to gain an advanced level of knowledge and a fourth year can easily be filled with further specialisation in a particular sub-topic of the course of study.

This arrangement into combined Bachelor + Masters courses is often not simply a convenience, but also forms a method to circumvent higher fees (whether deliberate or not is unclear). Since the degree is only conferred at the end, fourth year students are still considered undergraduate students, and thus retain access to their government student loans. The fee scale also remains as per the capped tuition fee rate for undergraduates, rather than escalating to graduate fee rates, which are often considerably higher.

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