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Independent resettlement & recruitment guide for serving Armed Forces & Veterans

Find a new place to belong

Find a new place to belong


11 May, 2018

Higher education is not for everyone, but it could be your route through transition. Access to HE qualifications have already been the stepping stone to new careers for many members of the Forces family. Find out how the Access to Higher Education Diploma changed the lives of Mark, Tommy and Susan …

The Access to Higher Education (HE) Diploma is designed for adults and is taken by people of all ages and backgrounds. It’s a nationally recognised qualification designed for people who left school with few qualifications but want to get into higher education. Many are looking to transition to a new career. Joining an Access to HE Diploma course may help you, too, to build support networks outside the patch. Access to HE students have a common bond – they have achieved against the odds.

‘Access to HE gave me renewed confidence in my ability to learn’
Dr Mark Field

Dr Mark Field

Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Policy (former Chief Petty Officer)

Mark did his Access to HE course part-time, two evenings a week, over two years. During this time he continued to work full-time as a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy.

‘There are probably a lot of people who, like me, didn’t have a wholly positive experience of school, and as a result spent years assuming that academic study wasn’t for them. For me, undertaking an Access to HE course changed that view. With the help of supportive, good-humoured and patient tutors, it provided me with the tools and, above all, the self-belief to undertake a higher education course.’

He was a little nervous about starting the course as he hadn’t particularly enjoyed school and had few formal qualifications. To his surprise, he found he really enjoyed studying and sharing ideas with other students. He recalls moving to the local pub to continue discussions over a pint when a study group was thrown out of college by a caretaker who was locking up!

Before starting his degree, Mark’s plan had been to train as a teacher. However, he enjoyed the course so much that he decided to continue studying and returned to university to complete a Master’s in Public Administration. While studying for this, he was awarded a studentship to cover his tuition fees and living expenses, allowing him to carry out three years of doctoral research. He received his PhD in European Politics in 2015 and around the same time was appointed Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Policy at the university.

Mark says: ‘I never imagined that I would end up as part of the university’s academic community, but study changes us. That I did is entirely thanks to the friendly and supportive atmosphere that the Access to HE course provided.

‘If you have a sense of curiosity, and you’re willing to commit time to study, an Access to HE course is a fantastic opportunity.’

‘The Access to HE course gave me a level of fulfilment that I hadn’t experienced before’
Susan Nelson

Susan Nelson

Course coordinator (Army child)

Sue’s father was in the Army, meaning she moved around a lot when she was growing up. She’d been to 11 schools by the time she was 12 and felt it messed up her education. She left school at 15 with no qualifications and went to work as a goods inward clerk.

As time went by, she started to feel more and more frustrated. She worked in a series of unskilled jobs because she could never prove to anyone she could do anything more challenging. But all the time she felt sure she was capable of a lot more.

At 43 years old, and the mother of two school-aged children, a friend told her about the Access to HE course. Her family decided they could manage without her earnings for a year while she did the course, so she signed up.

The Access to HE course gave her a level of fulfilment she hadn’t experienced before. She says: ‘The tutors introduced us to subjects and ideas that we’d never come across before – it opened our eyes to a new way of seeing things. The course was really well planned.

‘The tutors were so enthusiastic and understood our learning needs really well. When your confidence was beginning to wobble they’d step in with the right advice. As the course progressed, I learned how to get the best out of myself and I continued to apply those skills throughout my time at university.’

Tommy Sharpe

Undergraduate student, University of East Anglia (former Royal Marine)

Tommy joined the Royal Marines at 21 but had to leave after 12 years because of ill health. His life had been the Marines, and it was over. He had no plans for his future.

His experience in military hospitals made him aware of the challenges faced by Veterans in the care system, so he decided he wanted to follow his sister into social work and to work with Veterans. He’d left school with few qualifications but a call to a university pointed him to an Access to HE Diploma.

‘I had very low confidence, believing that I didn’t belong in the education system. The Access to HE course gave me self-belief. I didn’t realise it at the time but, looking back on it, some of the problem of my lack of confidence came from not being very good at reading.’

With the support of other students, he achieved his Access to HE Diploma and was able to take up the offer of a place to study social work at university. He is currently enjoying his work placement.

‘I genuinely believe that becoming a social worker will have as big an impact on my life as the Marines did. I couldn’t have been any more ready to join the Marines when I was a 21-year-old bloke. And now, using what I learned on my Access to HE course and my experience in the Marines, I feel like I couldn’t be more prepared to go in the direction that I want to go in: working with Veterans.’

But doesn’t this all come at a cost?

Service leavers have several options to fund their studies:

  • Enhanced Learning Credits (if you’re registered)
  • the Publicly Funded FE/HE scheme (the higher education course must be done immediately after the Access to HE courses)
  • Advanced Learner Loan.

The publicly funded FE and HE scheme would pay for your Access to HE Diploma and degree, as long as the Diploma is in a subject leading to degree and is done immediately before your degree studies. Your education officer will have more information. You may prefer to use learning credits (ELC or SLC) to pay for your course – many Access to HE providers are listed on the ELCAS website.

Advanced Learner Loan repayments don’t currently start until you start to earn more than £25,000 per year. And if you successfully complete a QAA-recognised Access to HE course, the balance of the loan will be cancelled when you complete your higher education course. For more information about Advanced Learner Loans visit

If you live in England, you may also receive a childcare allowance grant that doesn’t need to be repaid. You can see if you get help for childcare using the calculator here: Many universities also offer funds to help with the cost of going to university.

It is important to look in to your funding options carefully, to make sure you make the best choice for you and your family. Access to HE providers, your education officer or transition staff should be able to help you choose the best route.

Once you’ve got your funding in place …

You’re ready for that new start, you’re ready to enrol

You might be interviewed to make sure the course is right for you.

Find out about courses at your local college and check the ELCAS website. And think carefully about how you like to work. Are you happiest working as part of a team? If so, perhaps learning that involves some classroom activity is best for you. If you prefer to work alone, online learning could be better, although nowadays most courses have some parts that are completed online.

Find out more

For more information, sign up here for our email newsletter for Service Personnel, their families and advisers:

You may also find these websites helpful:

·      Access to HE website –

·      Real life stories –

·      Diploma database –

·      Advanced Learner Loans –

·      ELCAS –

·      UCAS –

History of Access to HE and the role of QAA

QAA regulates the Access to HE Diploma by licensing Access Validating Agencies (AVAs) to award the Access to HE Diploma. QAA manages the Diploma specification, which governs the structure of the qualification, and the licensing criteria that detail how AVAs must manage the qualification.

The qualification was established in the 1970s and continues to be designed to increase participation in higher education by individuals who are under-represented. More than 250,000 Access to HE students have started university since 1999.