About higher education

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About Higher Education

What is HE?

HE stands for ‘Higher Education’. This is an optional level of education that you might move onto once you finish at school, sixth form or college, and once you finish you receive a qualification called a degree.

Where can I study?

You can study Higher Education courses at lots of different places. Universities are some of the best-known providers, but lots of colleges also run HE courses and there is also the option to study online.

What types of courses can I do?

There are several different types of degree courses available such as Undergraduate, Postgraduate, Foundation Degree or Degree Apprenticeship. There are also thousands of different subjects you can study at HE and hundreds of different institutions you can study at.

How long does it take to complete a HE course?

Most degrees take three years to complete, but it depends on what subject you choose to study. For example, if you want to study Medicine it will take you five years to complete your degree. For Architecture, it can take between seven and ten years. Degree Apprenticeships take between three and six years to complete. It’s also worth bearing in mind that you can choose to study either full time or part time, and part-time courses will take longer to complete. When you’re researching your course choices, make sure you check how long the course takes to complete so you’re prepared.

Why would you want to study at HE?

Whilst it’s not compulsory to study at HE level, it can be a fantastic opportunity to boost your career options and improve your chances of getting a well-paid job (graduates are likely to earn more money over their lifetime than non-graduates). On top of these very practical reasons, studying at HE also allows you to study your very favourite subject, as well as meet loads of new people, take part in a huge range of extra-curricular activities, volunteer, earn money, live away from home if you want to… the list is endless! However, it’s also important to remember that HE isn’t for everybody, and it’s certainly not the only way to be successful. Make sure you do what’s right for you!

How do I apply?

How do I apply?Most applications to HE are submitted via UCAS, the University and College Admissions Service. Applicants complete one application form, which is the sent to all of their choices. You can find out more about applying through UCAS here.

Does it cost money to study at HE?

Higher Education courses are not free, and can be paid for with a combination of loans, grants/bursaries and personal finances. Student Finance England (SFE) manage all student loans, and a separate application must be submitted to SFE in order for a student to get a loan. How much money you are entitled to depends on your household income and location. To find out more about Student Finance, click here. Additional funding may come from a student’s own (or family) finances. Students often take on part time work to help pay for their studies, or they might receive financial support from family members.

College-based HE

What HE qualifications can I gain at a college?

There are a variety of HE courses on offer at Further Education (FE) colleges. There are HNC (Higher National Certificate) and HND (Higher National Diploma) courses that are equivalent to university-level qualifications and are specifically developed to prepare you for the world of work. These HE qualifications can help you to progress onto your chosen career and cover a range of specialisms, such as Engineering, Computing and Business Management. Some FE colleges also provide Higher/Degree apprenticeships as well as professional courses such as Policing and Emergency Services within their HE provision.

Who studies HE at a college?

Anyone aged 16 or over who has completed A levels or equivalent and is interested in studying at a higher level might choose to study HE at a college. You could be straight out of sixth form or college after studying A levels or BTECs, or a mature student who would like to gain extra qualifications. These courses would suit students who prefer practical learning and being more ‘hands-on’.

How is college-based HE different to university?

The class sizes in a college are usually much smaller compared to those at a university, where you tend to have large cohorts of students. This means there may be more opportunity for one-to-one support from academics. If the particular career you are interested in is vocational, studying HE at a college may be right for you. You may also be keen to gain experience of the career you are passionate about and studying a HNC/HND allows you to do this by developing the practical skills required for that specific profession.

What are some potential benefits of studying HE at a college?

If you would prefer a more practical approach to learning, more support and links to employment/your future career, studying HE at a college might be perfect for you. There may also be lower course fees than universities and you can still apply for student finance to cover this. There also tends to be more flexibility with HNC/HND programmes, which can fit around employment or other commitments, as well as the opportunity to study part-time.

Can you go to university after studying college-based HE?

When studying HE at college you typically start on a HNC course, which can be completed over one year. This is equivalent to a Level 4 qualification.

Upon completion, you can go on to study a HND for a further year, which is equivalent to a Level 5. A HND qualification is equivalent to a foundation degree or the first two years of a bachelor’s degree.

Can you go straight into work after completing college-based HE?

The tutors and academics on your college course are likely to have links with their chosen industry and may have worked in the industry themselves in the past. Vocational courses are designed to prepare students for work in their chosen industry. For example, on a HND Business course you would be likely to have engagement with local businesses and employers. This would help to build up your portfolio and CV when applying for jobs.

Different types of degrees and courses

What types of qualifications can you gain when you study at HE?

Lots! Higher Education is classed as Level 4 and above; the diagram below shows just some of the qualifications you could achieve. It can seem confusing and overwhelming, but remember that any Level 4+ qualification will help you increase your knowledge and skills in a specific area, in turn increasing your employability.

Most people have heard of degrees and there are primarily two types: a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (Bsc). You might also see BEng (Bachelor of Engineering) or LLB (Legum Baccalaureus, meaning Bachelor of Law in Latin). These are all Level 6 qualifications and usually take three years to complete. After completing a BA or BSc, some people choose to continue studying at a higher level for a Masters degree or even a PhD.

Foundation degrees and Higher National Diplomas are Level 5 qualifications, equivalent to two years at university. Higher National Certificates are a Level 4 qualification. HNDs and HNCs tend to be more vocational and career specific, e.g. you can undertake an HND in Hospitality Management.

Because of this, they might be a good choice if you know the sort of job you would like in the future or you enjoy practical ways of learning. Foundation degrees, HNDs and HNCs can all be ‘topped up’ to a full degree with further study if you choose to.

What is ‘undergraduate’ and ‘postgraduate’ study?

The term ‘undergraduate’ relates to your first HE level qualification. This usually means an undergraduate degree like a BA, BSc, LLB or BEng. Foundation degrees, HNCs and HNDs are also classed as an undergraduate qualification. ‘Postgraduate ’refers to any study you might undertake after this, for example a Masters or PhD. A common postgraduate qualification is a PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate of Education), which is a teacher training qualification.

Types of undergraduate courses

There are different types of undergraduate courses that you can study at university:

  • Standard 3-year courses
    Most BA, BSc, BEng and LLB courses take three years of full-time study to complete. This is likely to be what you will find as you research courses.


Part time courses

At most universities you can choose to study your degree part-time instead of doing three years of full-time study. Depending on the course and the institution you are studying at, this normally takes between four and six years.


Accelerated courses
Accelerated courses take two years instead of three and are taught over more weeks per year than a standard degree. These can be attractive for people who want to continue straight onto postgraduate study; for example, someone might do a two-year accelerated degree then a PGCE straight away to become a teacher.


Sandwich courses
Some courses are advertised as ‘sandwich courses’. This means that at some point throughout your course you will complete an extra year either in industry, gaining invaluable work experience, or study abroad. The normal course is the bread; the extra year is the filling.

What is an HND and an HNC?

If spending three, or potentially four, years full-time studying for a degree at university is not right for you, don’t despair.

You might not have heard of them before, but HNDs and HNCs could both great alternatives for you.

Both HND and HNC courses are undergrad qualifications (like a degree) but they take less time to complete, and are often designed to prepare you for a specific career.

Here’s our full guide to what they are and how you can study them.

What’s an HND?

A Higher National Diploma (HND) is a work-related course provided by higher and further education colleges in the UK. A full-time HND takes two years to complete, or three to four years part-time. Generally an HND is the equivalent to two years at university.

What’s an HNC?

A full-time Higher National Certificate (HNC) takes one year to complete, or two years part-time. Many HNC courses cover the same subjects as an HND, but an HNC is one level below an HND (it’s generally equivalent to the first year at university).

What Are the Benefits of an HND or HNC?

Unlike many degrees, these courses are vocationally focussed and therefore can lead straight on to a career. Moreover, they’re a great stepping stone up to a higher qualification, as you can choose to ‘top up’ an HND or HNC with extra studies at a later date, in order to convert it to a full bachelor’s degree.

Popular HND & HNC Courses:

Business and Finance
Business Management
Civil Engineering
Electrical Engineering
Graphic Design
Mechanical Engineering

Routes into HE – Useful information and links

What qualifications do I need to enter HE?

Depending on the course, UK students may be able to enter higher education with a range of qualifications which include, but are not limited to:

  • A level
  • Key skill qualifications
  • International Baccalaureate
  • National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs)
  • Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs)
  • BTECs, OCR Nationals and other vocational qualifications

What do the different qualifications mean?

The table below shows some examples of qualifications at each level under the various frameworks. The list is not exhaustive.

Qualification level Examples of qualifications What they give you
  • Entry level awards, certificates and diplomas
  • Essential skills at entry level
  • basic knowledge and skills
  • ability to apply learning in everyday situations
  • not geared towards specific occupations
  • GCSE grades D-G (and grades 3 to 1 in England)
  • level one awards, diplomas and certificates
  • Key Skills level 1
  • NVQs
  • Essential Skills
  • Music grades 1 to 3
  • basic knowledge and skills
  • ability to apply learning with guidance or supervision
  • may be linked to job competence
  • GCSE grades A*- C (and grades 4 to 9 in England)
  • intermediate apprenticeships
  • Level 2 awards, diplomas and certificates
  • OCR Nationals
  • NVQs
  • Essential Skills
  • Music grades 4 and 5
  • O level – grades A-C
  • good knowledge and understanding of a subject
  • ability to do a variety of tasks with some guidance or supervision
  • suitable for many job roles
  • AS and A levels
  • Access to Higher Education diploma
  • advanced apprenticeship
  • International Baccalaureate
  • NVQs
  • BTEC diplomas, certificates and awards
  • BTEC Nationals
  • OCR Nationals
  • Music grades 6 to 8
  • ability to gain or apply a range of knowledge, skills and understanding at a detailed level
  • appropriate if you plan to go to university, work independently or (in some cases) supervise and train others in their field of work
  • NVQs
  • BTEC Professional diplomas, certificates and awards
  • HNCs
  • Certificaties of Higher Education (CertHE)
  • Higher apprenticeship
  • specialist learning, involving detailed analysis of a high level of information and knowledge in an area of work or study
  • ​suitable for people working in technical and professional jobs, and/or managing and developing others
  • HNDs
  • NVQs
  • BTEC Professional diplomas, certificates and awards
  • Foundation degrees
  • Diploma of higher education (DipHE)
  • ability to increase the depth of knowledge and understanding of an area of work or study, so you can respond to complex problems and situations
  • involves high level of work expertise and competence in managing and training others
  • suitable for people working as higher grade technicians, professionals or managers
  • Bachelor’s degrees
  • Professional Graduate Certificate in Education
  • Graduate diplomas
  • BTEC Advanced Professional diplomas, certificates and awards
  • degree apprenticeship
  • a specialist, high-level knowledge of an area of work or study, to allow you to use your own ideas and research in response to complex problems and situations
  • suitable for people working as knowledge-based professionals or in professional management positions
  • Master’s degrees
  • Postgraduate Certificate in Education
  • BTEC Advanced Professional diplomas, certificates and awards
  • highly developed and complex levels of knowledge, enabling you to develop original responses to complicated and unpredictable problems and situations
  • suitable for senior professionals and managers
  • Doctoral degrees
  • specialist awards, certificates and diplomas
  • opportunity to develop new and creative approaches that extend or redefine existing knowledge or professional practice
  • suitable for leading experts or practitioners in a particular field

Useful Links

Progression pathways | Undergraduate, Conservatoires | UCAS

Pathways into UK higher education | British Council

Making the most of Open Days

What is a College/University Open Day?

This is a day when a college or university opens its doors to prospective students. They provide a great opportunity to have a look around the learning facilities, accommodation and social spaces, as well as meet academics and current students.

What can you expect on the day?

Different institutions may operate their open days slightly differently but most run from around 10am until 4pm. It is a good idea to make sure you know the start and end times before the day and have travel plans in place. Most universities will host tours of the campus, specific subject talks and sessions on topics such as student life and finance. They will usually publish a timetable in advance, sometimes with the opportunity to book onto activities, so make sure you check it out and plan which parts of the day you would like to be involved in.

Is going to an open day worth my time?

Yes! Open days are a great opportunity to find out more about the place you may be spending three or more years of your life. They provide a chance to meet lecturers and students face-to-face, tour the campus facilities, and explore the surrounding area. Even if the open day is virtual you will still have the chance to chat with lecturers and current students, along with virtual campus tours.

Is a virtual open day worth attending?

You can still make the most of an open day despite not being there in person. Being able to explore universities from the comfort of your own home means you can fit more open days in too if needed, or even go back and attend a second time if you just can’t decide whether to add a university to your shortlist. You will still have the chance to tour the campus virtually, meet the staff and students, attend online seminars, and ask all of your burning questions!

How do I choose which universities or colleges to visit?

Choosing the right university is a big decision and attending open days can be one of the most useful tools for helping you to decide. There is no limit to how many university or college open days you attend so it is entirely up to you how many you decide to go to and where they are. You may find that several universities host open days on the same days; if they are close to each other, this may mean that you can visit two institutions in one day! If they are further apart, you might need to choose between them, so do your research nice and early and make sure you know where you want to visit most.

How do I book a place on an open day?

Open days are free to attend but places must be booked. You still have to register for a virtual open day. Spaces for on-campus open days can fill up quickly so book your place as soon as possible. If you cannot make the specified dates for a university or college you want to visit, do not panic and dismiss it as a possibility – many offer private tours throughout the year.

Is there a dress code for an open day?

There is not usually a dress code, especially for virtual events; however, it pays to be presentable if you are on campus. Remember, the open day is not an interview – it is your chance to ‘interview’ the college or university staff and decide whether it is the right place for you!

Who shall I bring with me?

An open day can be daunting; it may be far away from your home and stir feelings of anxiety that ‘this is really happening’. Bring people who will be able to support you in your decisions, such as parents, carers, or trusted family members. Some prospective students also choose to bring friends. Bear in mind that this is a big decision for your parents/carers too – especially if they are helping out with your finances while you are studying – so they may want to see the campus facilities with you. Whoever you decide to bring along, the most important point is that you get to know the place and ask any questions you might have.

What are good questions to ask on an open day?

The day may feel overwhelming so it is best to write down questions in advance and have them handy. The list can be split into two key topics: academic and social. Some of the things you may want to know more about are listed below.

Academic questions

1.      How will my course be assessed?

2.      How much contact time will I have with my lecturer/tutor?

3.      Is there extra student support if needed?

4.      Is there an option to do a ‘sandwich year’?


Social questions (good to ask current students)

1.      How much does accommodation cost locally?

2.      What is the student union like?

3.      What is the social/nightlife like?

4.      Is there a gym or sports facilities?


1.      What are food prices like on campus?

2.      Is there help with available part time jobs?

3.      Does the campus have onsite doctors and a support network?

4.      Are there any societies to join?

5.      Are there any laundry facilities in the accommodation?

What shall I do after the open day?

You may feel overwhelmed with choices so you might find it helpful to write a list of pros and cons to compare and contrast with other colleges/universities. Talk to the people you went with to get their opinion and look over all the reading material you picked up during the day. If you are still unsure about the college/university, you may be able to arrange a second viewing during term-time or a direct call with one of your potential lecturers to help you make a final decision.

Choosing where to study

The course

When it comes to choosing a university, the course that you wish to study is a hugely important factor. Not all courses are offered at all universities, and some more specific or specialist courses may only be offered at one or two institutions in the entire country. Even if you were to pick a very widely-offered course, such as English or History, you will find that the course content can vary massively between institutions. It’s therefore really important that you have a good look at what courses each institution offers, and whether they can give you what you want from your studies.

The provider

There is a wide range of providers when it comes to Higher Education, from universities to colleges to online providers. Which of these might be best for you is a very personal decision, so do your research and work out what you want. Do you want a large campus university, or would you feel more comfortable on a smaller campus? Would you prefer to study at a local college and stay closer to home? Would part-time online study fit your needs best? These are just some of the questions you might ask yourself when deciding which provider is right for you.

The location

There are lots of factors to consider when deciding on a location. Some students choose to move far away from home, whilst others study at a provider close to home and may choose to remain living at home too. Whilst this second option might mean that you are already familiar with the local area and what it has to offer, if you choose to move away from home you should be prepared to do some research about the area you might be living in. Important factors to consider include:

  • Travel time and costs to get there and back
  • Quality of accommodation on offer
  • Does it feel ‘right’?
  • Do you like the town/city?
  • Do you feel safe there?
  • Is it somewhere you’d be happy to spend at least three years?

The accommodation

Accommodation is an important element of your study experience, and there are plenty of different types of accommodation available, including living at home (in some cases), in student halls, or privately rented properties. Where you choose to live is a personal choice, so be sure to give it plenty of thought.

If you choose to live away from home, some key factors to consider include:

  • How much does accommodation in your chosen location cost?
  • Do you want to live in student halls (accommodation that is usually owned or recommended by the university) or private rented?
  • How close do you want/need to live to the university/college?
  • Do you want to live alone or with other people?
  • Are there any specific features you want (e.g. en suite, double bed)?
  • Do you require car parking facilities?
  • Are the costs of utilities (e.g. gas, electricity, water) included?

It’s also worth remembering that commitments to student accommodation are on a yearly basis, so you have the option to find new accommodation each year should you wish to.

The facilities

Depending on your course and interests, there may be some specific facilities that you want or need close by. If your course requires specialist equipment, the range and quality of the facilities available at each institution might be an important deciding factor for you. This can also be relevant for your social life too; if you have a keen interest in sport, does the university or town/city have the facilities you need to allow you to pursue this?

The social life

For a lot of students, the social side of their Higher Education experience is as important as the academic side. It’s therefore important to consider whether the universities or colleges you are considering give you what you want when it comes to all things fun!

Universities usually have a wide range of clubs and societies that students can get involved in, covering all topics from Tiddly Winks to Extreme Ironing! If there isn’t a society that suits your interests, Student Unions can help you to set one up, so there really can be something for everyone. It’s also worth having a look around the local area and doing some research about the social opportunities available, including bars, restaurants, cinemas and other leisure facilities.

Rankings and reviews

There are plenty of useful sources of information about HE providers, ranging from formal rankings to reviews from current students. These can be handy for finding out what it’s like to actually study at a university or college, as well as information such as employment figures, student satisfaction and any awards that the institution has received. Some useful websites include:





Other useful links



Not going to university?

I am currently in Year 13 studying A levels but I don’t want to go to university. What are my other options once I leave sixth form?

Higher Education (HE) comes in many forms. You can do higher or degree apprenticeships, which will give you a real experience of employment alongside your studies. There is also the option of studying HE at a college, which allows you to get a more hands-on experience of the field you are interested in. You could also apply for jobs you are interested in straight after sixth form; however, the more qualifications and experience you have the more likely you are to be successful in obtaining a job.

Can I get a job once I complete my GCSE’s?

Technically you can, but by law the employer needs to provide you with some training until you are 18 years old. If you are keen to work an alternative might be to apply for an apprenticeship where you will get paid a salary and receive qualifications at the same time. Otherwise you could take on a part-time job alongside your studies.

How do I take a gap year before starting my university course?

Some universities and colleges will let you defer your entry onto a course. This means you can take a year out before starting; however, be sure to check whether or not you can do this for the course you have applied for. You also need to make sure you meet the conditions of the offer in the year that you applied. You can defer entry on UCAS when you apply by submitting an application for the following year. In some cases, it is possible to defer after submitting your UCAS application and once you have received your exam results. However, you would need to contact the university or college directly.

What can I do in my gap year?

You might want to take a year out before starting university to travel, earn some money, volunteer or gain work experience. This could be an opportunity for personal development before going to university or just a break from studying.

  • Year 11 Support Guide

    An easy-to-follow booklet that takes the complexity out of understanding your options for further and higher education, such as outlining the differences between the two, what course attainment levels mean, tips for interviews and meetings, FAQs and more.

    View Resources