Which course is right for you?

Some people have a clear idea of the subject they want to study or the career they want to progress to, but aren’t sure which type of course is suitable for them. Others want to go to university or college but feel overwhelmed by the options available and don’t know which subject to pick.

We’ve broken down the types of qualifications and gathered some advice to help you make the right choice for you. We’ve also listed the different kinds of higher education providers in West Yorkshire, so you can understand the differences in provision in the region.

Choosing your subject

If you’re not sure which subject is right for you, try researching the jobs that are currently in demand or that you’d like to do.Prospects.ac.uk has a useful guide to the range of careers you could enter directly after undergraduate study. Go Higher West Yorkshire also has information and resources on local labour market information, including a tool to compare pay for different job roles.

If you have a specific career in mind, it’s a good idea to talk to people within the sector to find out about the realities of the job and what kind of qualifications you need. If you haven’t worked in that area before, try to gain work experience to see if you actually like it – you can also include this in your application to show that you’re committed to your choice.

In West Yorkshire we have a range of higher education providers, some offering a wide selection of different subjects and others specialising in particular areas. Whatever you’re interested in, you’re sure to find a university or college to suit your choice. See ‘Choosing your provider’ below for more details.

Choosing your qualification type

There are eight different levels of education which are recognised across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and higher-level qualifications are Level 4 and above. They are provided by: a University Centre within an FE college; a university; an approved training provider; or a conservatoire.

This graphic shows how different courses and qualifications compare, and how to progress between them. The higher the level, the more advanced the qualification is.

Undergraduate degrees, which are generally studied full-time over three years or part-time over six years, are the most well-known higher-level qualification. There are nonetheless a range of alternatives that are becoming increasingly popular and which we encourage you to investigate. These include Higher and Degree Apprenticeships, which are a job with training that allows you to earn while you learn, and Higher Technical Qualifications such as Higher National Certificates (HNCs), Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) and Foundation Degrees, which are specifically approved by employers to prepare you for a particular career (e.g. business management).

Learners usually complete preceding levels before progressing to more advanced qualifications. Some higher education providers will consider equivalent work experience instead of a formal qualification – it’s always worth speaking to your chosen university or college’s admissions team to check.

Qualifications can be grouped into vocational and academic:

  • Vocational qualifications focus on practical application more than theoretical knowledge. They can be offered in everything from animal care and manufacturing right through to management and health & safety.
  • Academic programmes can offer work-based learning and industry insight through short-term opportunities, longer placements, or a year-in-industry (also known as a sandwich year).

Types of qualifications

CPD, trade & professional courses

Trade and professional qualifications are designed around specific career paths, giving you the skills to progress. They are usually designed for people already employed or looking to improve skills to make the next career step, so are often part-time and flexible.

Providers will also offer continued professional development (CPD) opportunities. These may be linked to specific professions or focus on teaching transferable skills such as business or project management, leadership or IT skills.

Some trade and professional courses are free, while you might be eligible for funding if not – see Funding for mature students

Search courses on the National Career Service’s course database.

Higher and degree apprenticeships

An apprenticeship is a paid job where the employee learns and gains valuable experiences through on-the-job training, supplemented with 20% of their time completing classroom-based or distance-learning with a college, university or training provider which leads to a nationally recognised qualification.

Higher and Degree Apprenticeships provide higher-level skills, and are suitable for those starting a career, changing direction, or upskilling themselves in their current job. There is no age limit to beginning an apprenticeship.

  • Higher level apprenticeships provide an opportunity to gain Level 4 qualifications or above, with most apprentices gaining an NVQ Level 4, HND, or foundation degree. A higher apprenticeship can take from one to five years to complete and involve part-time study at a college, university, or training provider.
  • Degree apprenticeships are similar to higher level apprenticeships, but differ in that they provide an opportunity to gain a full Bachelor’s degree (Level 6) or Master’s degree (Level 7).

Go Higher West Yorkshire has information about higher and degree apprenticeships, including their benefits, how to apply, and how funding and salary payments work. The onus is on the student to find an employer but course providers can help. Most institutions will post on their websites if they have employers who are looking to fund higher and graduate apprenticeships.

Here are links to the Go Higher West Yorkshire’s higher education partners who offer higher and/or degree apprenticeships:

Here is a comprehensive list of higher and degree apprenticeships available from our partners.

The Government’s apprenticeship support service provides a full list of providers.

“I didn’t see myself just learning in a lecture theatre among hundreds of other students, as I am quite a hands-on learner. The idea of doing something practical, learning on the job, getting paid, and having no debt was appealing.”

Student stories: Ruth Watson, HND at Leeds Building College and Degree Apprentice in Civil Engineering at Leeds Beckett University

Access to higher education courses

If you are aged 19 or over without the qualifications you need to enter higher education, these one-year, intensive courses are ideal for you. They are usually full-time and begin in September.

Access courses are aimed at learners who don’t have previous Level 3 qualifications such as A Levels or BTECs, or haven’t been in education for a long time. They focus on building the skills, knowledge and confidence you need to progress on to higher education in the subject area you’re interested in. They are recognised by colleges and universities across the UK and allow entry on to higher education courses in your chosen specialist area.

They are usually delivered by FE colleges and are focused into broad subject areas, e.g. Science, Healthcare Professions, Computing, Art & Design.

Here are the access courses available in West Yorkshire:

Leeds College of Building offers a bridging course aimed at students who need to widen their knowledge and skills before progressing on to a Level 4 Higher National Certificate (HNC).

You can get an advanced learner loan for Access to Higher Education courses, and any outstanding balance will be ‘written off’ if you complete a higher education course.

“I’d got to a point in my Teaching Assistant role where I’d gone as far as I could without accessing further training. I knew I needed to retrain and this was my chance to do it in something I really wanted to do and my passion wasn’t teaching, it was nursing. It’s always been nursing.”

Student stories: Leanne, studying Access to Higher Education (HE) Health course at Calderdale College.

Foundation years

Some providers offer a foundation or qualifying year for your first year of study. They are aimed at learners who might already have A Levels or other Level 3 qualifications, but not the right grades or in the right subject area.

They are generally one year, full-time courses delivered at a university or college, and can be offered as a ‘standalone’ course, or as part of a degree. You will usually continue from a foundation year to a three-year undergraduate degree.

Foundation years are usually designed to develop the skills and subject-specific knowledge required to undertake a degree course, and so they specialise in a subject area.

Foundation years cost the same per year as an undergraduate degree and you’ll be treated as a full-time undergraduate student. You can access student finance for foundation years.

“I completed the Preparation for Higher Education foundation year – it’s an exceptional course and I felt more than prepared to progress on to the BSc Nursing (Mental Health) course. Any doubts I had about returning to education were wiped out … I would say to anyone who is thinking about returning to university, forget whatever you think you can’t do, you can do it, and the support is there.”

Student stories: Gary Hinken, studied Preparation for Higher Education foundation year and then BSc Nursing (Mental Health) at University of Leeds


Foundation degrees

Foundation degrees are higher-level qualifications which are shorter than typical undergraduate degrees and usually focus on a particular job or profession, with a mixture of academic and vocational learning. They usually take two years full-time to complete, or longer for part-time students.

Foundation degrees are a good option for people who want to study to directly progress your career, as they focus on providing professional and technical skills– within a shorter time frame than a full degree.

Unlike undergraduate degrees, there are no set entry requirements for foundation degrees. Employment experience might be more relevant to your application. Some employers even sponsor their staff to complete foundation degrees as graduates can bring new skills back to the organisation.

There is usually the option to continue for a further year to gain a full honours degree, either within the same course or through a ‘top-up’ at another institution.

You’ll also still be entitled to the same student finance as other higher education students.

“I ended up in a rut and I didn’t know what to do. I knew I was ready for a career change but I felt like I didn’t know who to turn to for advice … When I spoke to the College they were really helpful. I completed a maths and English assessment and discussed my qualifications and experience. I was told I could study a degree! I was so pleased to hear this as it wasn’t something I thought I’d have the opportunity to do.”

Student stories: Carl, studying Business, Leadership and Management Foundation Degree at Calderdale College

“While there’s obviously an academic spin on everything, the course is run like a workplace environment where tasks are set so I learn how to do things for myself. I’ve found this way of teaching incredibly beneficial, and although I’m still in my first year here, I already feel a lot more confident when working on tasks and not just the particular areas that pique my interest most. I’m looking forward to a fruitful future in the industry.”

Student stories: Jim Edginton studied Independent Game Development FdA at Wakefield College

Higher National Certificate (HNCs) and Higher National Diploma (HNDs)

Higher National Certificate (HNCs) and Higher National Diploma (HNDs) are both higher technical qualifications which are eligible for student finance. HNCs are one-year work-related courses which are equivalent to the first year of a university degree programme, and the HNDs are two-year, work-related courses, equivalent to the first two years.

HNCs and HNDs are usually delivered through a FE college with HE provision, and are highly regarded by employers as they are explicitly designed to prepare learners for the world of work.

You can progress from a HNC to a HND, and once you’ve completed the HND it’s possible to gain an undergraduate degree through a ‘top-up course, or by directly entering a degree in year three.

You can apply for student finance while studying higher technical qualifications.

“Doing this course gave me so many opportunities; the chance to make contacts and network with people and that has been a vital part of my successes to date. The majority of opportunities I’ve had have been made through people I’ve met at college or university. Also, the skills I learnt in performance and song writing have been extremely relevant to my role as a music producer.”

Student stories: Darren studied HND in Music (Popular Music) at Wakefield College


Undergraduate degrees

Undergraduate degrees, also called Bachelor’s or first degrees, are three-year full-time/six year part-time (where available) qualifications which can be studied at universities and colleges.

Undergraduate degrees have traditionally focused on academic study, but vocational learning is becoming an increasingly important element of many courses. Work-based learning through placements or live projects is common, and some courses offer a year-in-industry work placement or ‘sandwich year’ which is usually taken between second and third year of study. This means you can graduate with existing experience in your chosen industry.

Types of Bachelor’s degree include:

  • Bachelor of Arts – BA (Hons)
  • Bachelor of Science – BSc (Hons)
  • Bachelor of Engineering – BEng (Hons)
  • Bachelor of Laws – LLB (Hons)

There’s a good mix of classroom-based learning and practical sessions on the course at Bradford, and learning on placement has been my favourite part of the course so far. My first placement was at Airedale Hospital, working on a ward with elderly people. I loved the satisfaction of helping them and making their life a bit easier. I also found the communication skills I’d learnt in the café, listening to our customers’ problems and being empathetic to them, set me up well for the ward.”

Student stories: Chris Smith is studying BSc Nursing (Adult) at University of Bradford

Student stories: Mark is studying BSc Applied Sports Performance at Wakefield College

Top-up degrees

If you have an existing Level 5 qualification (such as a Higher National Diploma (HND), NVQ Level 5 or Foundation Degree), a top up degree will allow you to build on your previous learning, gain credits and graduate with a full undergraduate degree.

Top-up degrees are equivalent to the final year of an undergraduate degree study. It’s possible to progress straight from your previous study or return to education after a break – there’s no time limit on the gap between your Level 5 study and the top-up degree.

Student stories: Alan Troake, studying BA (Hons) (Top-up) Performance at Bradford College 


Postgraduate study

After graduating with an undergraduate degree or equivalent (level 6 degree apprenticeship or top-up degree), or sometimes with work experiences which would equal an undergraduate degree, you can apply to a Level 7 or Level 8 programme of study.

A common postgraduate qualification is a Masters degree, which provides the opportunity to extend skills, demonstrate expertise and to progress a research project. They usually take one year full-time from September to September, or where available you may be able to study part-time over two or three years. Masters degree titles include:

  • Master of Arts – MA
  • Master of Science – MSc
  • Master of Engineering – MEng
  • Master of Research – MRes
  • Master of Laws – LLM

Masters degrees often build upon the learning of an undergraduate degree with a specific focus linked to business or industry. For example, a Masters in Business Administration is an internationally recognised degree to advance business and management skills. Other Masters degrees are academic in focus.

There isn’t a fixed cost for this qualification, but the average cost of a classroom-based, taught Masters in the UK is £9,465. If you’re under 60 on the first day of the first academic year of your course, a Masters Loan of up to £11,836 is available from student finance and can help towards tuition fees and living costs – although it’s unlikely it will cover the full costs of studying. Course providers may also offer bursaries or fee waivers.

Other postgraduate study options include postgraduate certificates (PGCert) or postgraduate diplomas (PGDip), which are a shorter postgraduate study options and often have a vocational focus. A PGCert is equivalent to one-third of a Masters, and a PGDip is equivalent to two-thirds of a Masters – you will complete all the classroom elements but not write a dissertation. They’re shorter than a full Masters degree, they are sometimes easier to fit around work commitments.

Some postgraduate courses can allow you to enter regulated professions. These are usually Certificate- or Diploma-level qualifications, rather than full degrees. Common examples include the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) and conversion courses such as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).

Finally, the most advanced higher education study option is a PhD, or doctorate. A PhD degree involves independently conducting original and significant research in a specific field or subject, in order to produce a final publication-worthy thesis. Full-time PhDs usually last for three or four years, while part-time PhDs can take up to six or seven. Once graduated, PhD students might progress into academia or into industry roles which take advantage of their research skills.

Student stories: Michelle, studying a PhD in Health and Social Care at Leeds Trinity University

Leisure and hobby

If you fancy trying something new or want to pursue a pastime and make new friends, leisure and hobby courses allow you to learn new skills. They’re often shorter courses that take place at evenings and weekends and are designed to fit around your existing commitments. They’re a great way to familiarise yourself with attending college while you plan your return to study.

Making your choice

Choosing your provider

In West Yorkshire there are 13 higher education providers offering higher-level qualifications: six universities, six further education colleges with HE provision, and a music conservatoire.

Regardless of which institution you study at, the government’s Office for Students ensure that providers deliver positive outcomes for students. Any publicly-funded higher education provider must ensure that all students, from all backgrounds, and with the ability and desire to undertake higher education:

  • Are supported to access, succeed in, and progress from, higher education.
  • Receive a high quality academic experience, and their interests are protected while they study or in the event of provider, campus or course closure.
  • Are able to progress into employment or further study, and their qualifications hold their value over time.
  • Receive value for money

This means that wherever you choose to study, you can be confident in receiving a high quality experience and that your qualifications are recognised and valued by employees.

Higher education at FE colleges

Some further education colleges have HE provision, usually within a ‘University Centre’ which means you’ll be studying with other adult learners aged 18 and over.

Colleges offer many benefits that make them attractive for mature students. Features of HE study within an FE college include:

  • lower tuition fees
  • small class sizes
  • frequent contact with your tutors and individual study support
  • location – you can choose to stay close to home (reducing any living expenses)
  • flexible study options, including two-year professional courses and part-time provision
  • progressive and modular programmes – you can choose to continue to future courses

Further education colleges with HE provision in West Yorkshire include:


Conservatoires provide performance-based higher education, including music, drama, screen and production courses – both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Courses at conservatoires are based around individual tuition, practical training, and frequent opportunities to perform. They have a strong vocational focus, with teaching designed to reflect the industry you’re interested in so that students graduate with good knowledge of ways of working and industry standards. All teaching staff at conservatoires are working professionals. There is a strong emphasis on one-to-one tuition, alongside group work and performances.

Students are often expected to be on campus full-time every weekday, with performances and workshops mostly held in the evenings and at weekends. On top of this, students are expected to practise extensively in their own time.

Conservatoires in West Yorkshire:


Universities are the most common providers of higher education, with 165 public universities in the UK. These span small institutions with a couple of thousand students, to very large organisations with tens of thousands of students. They might be on a single campus or across several locations. Some universities offer a broad range of subject choices, whereas others specialise in a few areas of excellence.

Given this diversity, it’s difficult to generalise what you can expect from a university. However, there are some common features for most universities:

  • tuition fees at or close to the maximum (currently £9,250)
  • likely to be a larger cohort of students on your course – although you may have smaller study group sizes
  • a focus on independent study
  • a range of subject choices, with options to pick modules in different subjects
  • dedicated student support services such as careers advisors, wellbeing support and student unions
  • large campus locations with accommodation and social venues on-site or nearby

Different types of university

Some universities specialise in conducting research – their teaching staff are also likely to be carrying out research in their specialist fields, and this can inform the curriculum. 24 of these ‘research-intensive’ universities form the Russell Group.

Following the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, many former polytechnics became universities, most commonly known as Post 92 universities. Education at these institutions combines vocational, professional and industrially-focused learning with innovative teaching, state-of-the-art facilities and strong links with industry partners.

Universities in West Yorkshire

Making your decision

When considering which provider would suit you best, it might be helpful to think about the following questions:

  • Would you relocate to study? If not, how far are you willing to commute to attend your university or college?
  • How important is it to you to have a ‘traditional’ student experience?
  • Would you prefer to be part of a large or smaller group of learners?
  • What support do you need (e.g. academic support, disability support, financial support), and which providers best suit your needs?
  • Which providers can support the way you want to study (e.g. part-time, flexible hours, etc.)?
  • Which providers would be most affordable for you?
  • Do you want to be taught by research-focused academics, and/or industry professionals who have expertise outside of academia?
  • What are the progression opportunities once you’ve graduated from study? What links to employers do providers have, and what employability support will you receive while studying?

The Discover Uni website allows you to compare official statistics for courses at different providers, including National Student Survey satisfaction scores, fees and accommodation costs, how the courses are taught and assessed, and employment and salaries after study.

University and college open days give you the chance to visit the providers’ location, see facilities, and ask questions to students and staff. These are usually at the start of the academic year (September – October), and towards the end (May – July). Check providers’ webpages for dates of upcoming open days.

If you can’t attend an in-person open day, you might be able to explore through a virtual tour, digital experience or webpages which introduce you to study at the provider you’re interested in:

View our information about support while studying.