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Higher education: time to step up?

Higher education: time to step up?


27 Apr, 2020

Higher education at a college or university is about more than just degree courses – it offers a range of options, many of which have a more vocational slant. So, if you’re ready to step up to the next level, HE could be the option for you.

If you’re thinking of embarking on a higher education (HE) qualification, that’s great – you can use your ELC to fund anything above level 3 (level 6 on the SQF), and that includes university modules and nationally recognised diplomas. Other HE courses open to you for consideration include diplomas, bachelor’s degrees, foundation degrees and postgraduate qualifications. The only problem you are likely to have is in deciding exactly what and how to study!

Choosing an HE course

You may already have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to study at a higher level but, if you’re unsure, our advice is to make sure you understand the nature of the subject you are considering, especially if it’s something new to you. So do your research, and ensure you know exactly what a course is offering you – topic areas, what the modules will cover, etc. Whatever else you take in to consideration, it goes without saying that you must have a strong interest in the subject and the course content, as you will be spending three years or more occupied with it, which won’t be much fun if it turns out you’re not that struck with it after all!

You are also likely to do better at a course if you already have an aptitude for the subject. It might be a really fascinating course, which promises to lead to a host of career openings, but if it turns out you’re no good at it, you’re unlikely to end up with a good qualification at the end of it – and may even fail altogether.

It’s a good idea to start by thinking about the qualifications you already have and the subjects/areas you have a flair for. Other things you might want to think about include the course provider’s academic reputation (you can find university league tables and subject ranking tables online), its graduate employment rates, and links between the university or college and employers.


The Uni Guide is a free and independent website packed with everything you need to find the right university course for you.

Having decided what you want to study, you will be faced with a variety of ways to study it.

How do HE courses differ?

The most basic difference is between the levels of courses. While most HE courses lead to a degree, some lead to sub-degree qualifications such as a Higher National Certificate (HNC), Higher National Diploma (HND) or a foundation degree. In general, such courses will be shorter than a degree course, more vocationally orientated and will have lower entry requirements. Some will be linked to degree courses, though, giving you the option of progressing to a degree if you perform well enough on the early parts of the course.

With many qualifications being earned through students completing a number of modules, the distinction between HE (generally academic) and further education (FE) (often vocational) can be unclear. Credits from a selection of courses can often be added together to gain degrees and other HE qualifications.

Both HE and FE courses can be taken via distance learning. The difference between these is not always clear-cut, though, and in some cases (e.g. foundation degrees), both types are involved. Many qualifications are modular; this means that you complete them in sections (modules), often of your own choosing, and credits gained from a selection of such courses can be gathered together to ‘add up’ to degrees and other HE qualifications.

Please note that Service leavers cannot access support under the FE/HE scheme to commence studies at master’s level but they can utilise their ELC for study at this level.

Here’s a rundown of some of the other popular higher-level course options you could choose from …

Higher national certificates (HNCs) and higher national diplomas (HNDs)

HNCs and HNDs are work-related (vocational) HE qualifications. While bachelor’s degrees (see below) tend to focus on gaining knowledge, HNCs and HNDs are designed to give you the skills to put that knowledge to effective use in a particular job. Highly valued by employers, both in the UK and overseas, they can also count towards membership of professional bodies and other employer organisations. HNCs can take one year to complete full-time and two years part-time (or via, say, distance learning). HNDs take two years full-time and can also be taken part-time (which takes longer). (The award of an HND requires more units to be passed than for an HNC.) They equate to approximately halfway between an A-level and a degree, although they are, as mentioned above, more practically based than the latter.

Foundation degrees

Foundation degrees combine learning with work experience if you decide you want to ‘earn while you learn’. The equivalent of two-thirds of a full honours degree, this is a fully flexible qualification that allows you to study full- or part-time to fit your lifestyle. On passing, you will gain 240 ‘points’ towards a full degree course, and full account will be taken of any prior learning and experience you have accrued, too. Recent developments, including university partnerships and funding, make these qualifications increasingly available to people in the Services.

Degree courses

A bachelor’s degree is a course of HE academic study leading to a qualification such as a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc). They are sometimes known as ‘ordinary’ or ‘first’ degrees. A bachelor’s degree is designed to give learners a thorough understanding of a subject, and usually takes three or four years to complete full-time (some degrees, such as medicine, can take five or six years).

Postgraduate qualifications

Postgraduate qualifications are HE qualifications that require learners to have already completed a bachelor’s degree. Most types of postgraduate qualification will include taught and research elements. They generally fall into one of two categories: postgraduate certificate or postgraduate diploma.

Think you’re missing the necessary basics?

If you aren’t already in possession of the lower-level qualifications you would normally need to build on in order to secure your place on an HE course, the Access to Higher Education (HE) Diploma – often referred to by its shorthand form, Access Diploma – could be for you. It’s a qualification that prepares people for study at university, and is designed for those who would like to study in HE but who left school without the usual qualifications, such as A-levels. It is widely accepted by universities and colleges, having been developed with their support, and is designed to provide a good grounding in the knowledge and study skills needed to succeed in HE. Although equivalent to A-levels, Access Diploma courses are put together with people who haven’t studied for a while in mind – and most don’t require prior qualifications. Many are suitable for study part-time or in the evenings, which adds to their flexibility. Most FE colleges in England and Wales offer such Access courses, and a number are available through distance learning, so you should be able to find a course that is convenient for you, and that caters for your interests or career ambitions. You can find out more about Access to HE courses, browse courses and read success stories on the Access to Higher Education homepage.

How to learn

Qualifications can be earned through full-time courses, part-time courses, day release, night school, and open and distance learning (see box and click here to read our full-length feature). There will usually be more times when students get together for joint study periods in open learning, with distance learning generally catering for students who are so far away that they study almost entirely by themselves.


In the current difficult times, distance learning lets you stay in control of your education. It allows you to study whenever and wherever you want to, without having to travel – which is especially useful at the moment.

To find out all about this valuable tool, click here to read our in-depth feature.

ELC funding for higher education

The good news is that your ELC provides you with access to a first full level 3 or a first HE qualification (e.g. foundation degree, first undergraduate degree or equivalent) free from tuition fees. This commitment means that Service leavers who have joined at level 2, say, and have taken the opportunity to gain a qualification such as an advanced apprenticeship, or other accredited learning at level 3 or equivalent, may now be able to access their first higher-level qualification.

Full details can be found in JSP 822, which can be accessed and downloaded here


Your line manager should be your first point of contact. Each unit has an education/learning specialist, and each Service also has a network of educational and learning centres where advice can be sought and ideas explored.


Full- and part-time courses

  • Discover Uni
    Decide if university is right for you, choose what and where to study, find and compare courses
  • UCAS
    Search and apply for full-time courses by course name, provider name or location
  • National Careers Service
    Search for full- and part-time courses

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