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Learn for life and make learning work for you

Learn for life and make learning work for you


08 Feb, 2018

When you ask young children what they want to be when they grow up they are often very clear: ‘I’m going to be an astronaut … a princess … a doctor.’ Not all of us can realise our childhood dreams, but for some they do come true. Find out how QAA-recognised Access to HE qualifications have helped others follow their dreams and change their lives – many of whom thought higher education wasn’t really for them

Learning plays an important role in individual personal development, and for many students the Access to HE Diploma has changed their lives and helped them pursue a graduate profession or gain promotion.

‘As a teenager I was convinced that people like me couldn’t go to university’

Nneka Akudola became a criminal barrister after completing an Access to HE course in legal studies. With only four GCSEs, she was working long hours as a waitress, for very little reward, when she decided to try Access to HE. Nneka didn’t have any firm career ideas when she started her studies – she just wanted a degree. She was accepted for a place to study law at Cardiff University and was accepted to the bar a year after graduating.

‘I definitely couldn’t have taken a degree without first completing the Access to HE course’

The Access to Higher Education (HE) Diploma

The Access to HE Diploma is a qualification to prepare adults to succeed in higher education by giving them the skills, subject knowledge and confidence they need in a supportive and encouraging environment. It is equivalent to A-levels and is recognised by UK higher education providers. Every year, more than 25,000 students successfully complete an Access to HE Diploma and are accepted on to higher education courses. Around half of these students are aged 25 or older. Many left school with few qualifications.

‘The Access to HE course is nothing like school. The tutors are very supportive, and I think they recognise how life changing the Access to HE qualification can be. Life skills, experiences and personal stories are all valued on the Access to HE course, as well as the main study curriculum, which I have found very interesting and challenging.’
Simon Hatch

‘The tutors recognise how life-changing the Access to HE qualification can be’

Costs and fees

Many people worry that they won’t be able to afford university. You don’t need to pay money in advance, and tuition and living cost loans are not like commercial loans. 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 on Many universities also offer bursaries to help with the cost of going to university.

Tuition fees for Access to HE Diplomas vary. However, if you take out an Advanced Learner Loan to pay for your Access to HE studies the fees will be around £3,350. The government-backed scheme makes Advanced Learner Loans available to eligible students aged 19 and over. Again, more information is available from Students successfully completing a QAA-recognised Access to HE Diploma will have the balance of their Advanced Learner Loan cancelled when they complete their university studies. Advanced Learner Loan repayments currently start when you earn more than £21,000 per year. That means you may be paying the loan back while you study.

You may also use Enhanced Learning Credits (ELC) towards the tuition fees for an Access to HE Diploma, and, if you are eligible, you may use the publicly funded FE/HE scheme to pay for your Access to HE and university studies. It is important to look into your funding options carefully to make sure you make the best choice for you. Access to HE providers, your education officer or transition staff should be able to help you choose the best route.


There are more than 300 providers of Access to HE Diplomas covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Diploma database search on the Access to HE website lists all QAA-recognised Diplomas and providers. A number of these providers and Diplomas are also listed on the ELCAS website.


Unlike many other qualifications there is no national curriculum for Access to HE Diplomas, therefore the subjects studied may vary between different Access to HE providers. However, if you are studying a Diploma designed for progression to a degree in nursing, for example, you can expect to study subjects including human biology, psychology and the context of health (including the role of the profession in supporting the health of people, the origins of public health and an awareness of the role of government and other bodies in health professions).

‘When I left school without the “necessary qualifications” I thought I would never fulfil my dream of becoming a midwife … After almost giving up hope all those years ago, I am now working as a full-time midwife and enjoying every minute. I never tire of telling people about the benefits of Access to HE!’
Linda White

‘I found that my Access to HE qualification was highly valued by the university’

There are almost 400 Access to HE courses in health-related subjects and nearly 200 specifically designed for progression to a degree in nursing. Each year around 50 per cent of Access to HE students study Diplomas in health, public services and care.

Course tutors provide a supportive, encouraging, yet challenging environment to help adults make the transition to higher education. Students also use their life experiences to support their studies and one another, developing strong support networks to help them through the challenges of the course, and beyond.

Former bricklayer Richard Deacon says ‘The other students were all of the same mind-set – they were there to change their career pathways. There was a good atmosphere of mutual support and to this day I am still in contact with many of my classmates.’ Richard is now studying towards a PhD and has almost succeeded in his dream to become a research scientist.

At the age of 45 and a mother of two, Sue Long was unable to progress in her job without a degree. She felt she had missed out and decided to do something about it.

‘I left school at 15 years old with no qualifications. I thought you had to be super-brainy and super-rich to go to university.’
Sue Long

‘The Access to HE course completely changed my life. I had no idea that it would be such a major stepping stone to other things.’

Sue completed her Access to HE course in a year and went on to study history at the University of Cambridge. She took a job at the university after graduation.

Follow your dreams and get on course to higher success

‘If you are thinking about Access to HE, don’t let what might be stop you – let what could be drive you! The course will provide all the skills you need to engage and be who you really want to be.’
Alan Searle, self-employed business psychologist and former Access to HE student

  1. Take the first step … Think about what subject area you would like to study. Do you want to progress in your current career? Do you want to change direction and try something new?
  2. Find out more … Look on the Access to HE website, read the real-life stories and search for Diplomas (by location, subject, provider or type of study).
  3. Talk to your education advisors … (find out about doing maths and English GCSEs before you start if you don’t already have them).
  4. Check your funding options … Could you get an Advanced Learner Loan? (QAA-recognised Access to HE Diplomas are eligible for Advanced Learner Loans and the balance of the loan will be cancelled when you complete your HE studies.) Could you use learning credits? Could you use the publicly funded FE/HE scheme?
  5. Contact providers to get more information … When does the course start? Where will you be taught? How much teaching time is there? How much time will you need to spend studying on your own? What support can you expect? When and how do you sign up? (Do you need to have an interview or test before you enrol?)
  6. Look at UCAS and university websites/speak to higher education admission staff … What are the entry requirements? (What qualifications do you need to get on the degree course?) Does the Access to HE Diploma you want to do meet these needs?

College-based full- and part-time courses usually start in September; distance learning courses tend to have different start dates throughout the year; some Diplomas are available for January starts.

On the course:

  • use your existing skills and learn new ones
  • develop a new support network and make new friends
  • make your university applications (mid-November)
  • receive your university offers (around February/March)
  • graduate from college (July)
  • start university (September).

Find out more

You may also find these websites helpful:
Access to HE website
Real-life stories
Diploma database
Advanced Learner Loans