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Higher Education Explained

Deciding whether higher education (HE) is right for you is a big decision, but what is it? Unbiased and up-to-date information can help set you on the right path for a future that's right for you.

Higher Education (HE) is studying at level 4 and above, the level after compulsory education, so it’s your choice if you want go on to it. HE doesn’t just refer to degrees, it includes a range of qualifications, including apprenticeships. You can study in different places, from universities, colleges, and other providers to the work place. Here’s a list of what HE covers:

  • Higher National Certificate/Diploma (HNC/HND) – These are vocational courses, usually provided by fu˜her or higher education colleges. An HNC takes one year (full time), and is the equivalent of the first year of a degree. An HND is the next step, and takes two years (full time), it is the equivalent of the second year of a degree.
  • Certificate/Diploma of Higher Education (CertHE/DipHE) – These are academic qualifications, a Ce˜HE takes one year, and is the equivalent of the first year of a degree or an HNC. A DipHE is equal to two years or an HND. They can be awarded if you leave a degree course early, or taken as standalone qualifications.
  • Foundation Degree (FdA) – An FdA is a vocational course combining practical work-based learning with academic study. FdAs usually take two years, a°er that time you can ‘top-up’ your studies to achieve a full degree.
  • Top-up Degree – These are available a°er completing an FdA/HND/DipHE or equivalent Level 5 qualification. A top-up course usually takes a year, and allows you to upgrade your qualification to a full degree.
  • Degree – A ‘Bachelors degree’ is the broad term given to a full undergraduate degree, there are different titles depending on the course e.g. Bachelor of Arts (BA Hons) and Bachelor of Science (BSc Hons). A standard degree usually takes three years, but some courses may have the option of an additional placement year. There are four year courses that integrate masters level study with a degree, the qualifications received are known as MA Hons/MSci Hons (or other subject specific titles).
  • Higher/Degree Level Apprenticeships – Apprenticeships are work-based qualifications, combining on-the-job training with classroom study. You can study both Higher and Degree Apprenticeships from Level: 4 – 7.

Read more about different qualifications and how transferable they with our Interactive Qualification Chart, or read more about Apprenticeships.

So, why go to university?

There were 757,000 applications for full-time undergraduate places through UCAS in 2023, with record levels applying in 2022. Source: Commons Library

On average graduates earn £10,000 a year more than those without HE level qualifications – according to gov.uk.

You can learn skills that make you more valuable to future employers, developing skills that could help you change career. Find out more about the benefits university brings. Watch the video below to find out why Mia Prior decided to study HE.

There are some misconceptions about HE…

“You don’t need to study at HE to get the career you want…”

Lots of people hear stories about how people have become successful without going to uni, whilst it’s certainly the case that it’s not always necessary, some careers do require you to study at HE level. But also studying at HE gives you an advantage in so many ways, from contacts to experience and skills that you can’t get else where. Check out this film highlighting why studying at HE can help you get the career you want…

“HE is just like school…”

When you’ve already been in education since you were four or five years old the prospect of more of the same can feel unappealing. If you choose to study at HE you’ll have chosen to focus on a particular area of study – hopefully one you enjoy!

The way you study is different, it may take more self discipline but you can do it at times that suit you. You won’t always be in “lessons”, you’ll take part in seminars which are more of an exchange of ideas. You might study in a lab, a studio, or outside doing field work, perhaps in even a zoo! There are HE courses which is split between the “classroom” and a work placement.

You’ll also meet new people and make new friends, and might get to discover a whole new town or city with new opportunities and experiences. Discover the possibilities…

Find out more:

Videos: Inspiring Stories

HE Knowledge Hub Podcast

Student Finance Explained 

Student life

Frequently Asked Questions


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