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Taking stock, broadening horizons

Taking stock, broadening horizons


07 Dec, 2017

The Access to Higher Education (Access to HE) Diploma – regulated by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) – is a widely recognised qualification that provides a second chance for adults who left school without the qualifications needed to enter higher education. If that’s you, read on …

‘The idea of studying for a degree had always been in the back of my mind, but I’d never looked into it seriously.’
Chris Healey,
former Access to HE student

Every year we collect data about the Access to HE Diploma and students who complete the qualification to show how important the Diploma is in terms of changing lives. Last year, 23,660 successful Access to HE students started university; most of them were over 21. More than 90% of Access to HE graduates were in employment or further study six months after they completed their degree. Many Access to HE students study courses to prepare them for jobs in areas with skills shortages, and therefore contribute to UK productivity. The most popular subjects studied at university by Access to HE students are nursing and other subjects allied to medicine, social studies (including social work) and education.
As a Services child, Sue Nelson’s education was disrupted – she had attended 11 schools by the time she was 12. She started her Access to HE course at the age of 43, taking the difficult decision to give up her job. After completing her degree she became a lecturer providing support and inspiration to others like her.

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

The Access to HE Diploma is designed to prepare adults to study at university. It does this by including lessons in study skills (including essay writing, self-reflection) alongside lessons in specific subjects. There is no national curriculum for Access to HE Diplomas and there are often differences between courses with the same title. However, UK universities understand these differences and recognise the qualification for entry to their higher education courses. The most recent data show that more than 130 universities in the UK accepted Access to HE students.

How is the Access to HE Diploma made up?

The Diploma is made up of blocks of study called units. Units are usually based around topics. Each individual Diploma is governed by Rules of Combination that explain which units need to be completed in order to achieve the qualification. Each unit is allocated credits, and you must successfully complete 60 credits, which meet the Rules of Combination, to achieve the Diploma. Each unit is graded Pass, Merit or Distinction, and you will receive a profile of grades, to a maximum of 45 credits at level 3. Universities will make offers for particular grade profiles.

Alan Searle, a 33-year-old widower with three children, was a former engineer looking to return to work after taking time out to look after his family following the death of his wife. He did not have the qualifications he needed to gain employment and needed to re-skill, so he took an Access to HE Diploma. During his course he was diagnosed with dyslexia, but he was given additional support to make his learning difficulty work to his advantage. He completed his degree and a postgraduate teaching qualification, and became a lecturer sharing his experience with others in similar situations. After a few years he changed direction and now runs his own business providing training on team working and resilience.

‘The other students and staff made the transition back into education a very enjoyable and exciting experience.’
Alan Searle

Education plays an important role in individual personal development. For many Access to HE students the Diploma has changed their lives and helped them pursue a graduate profession or to gain promotion. Research by Bath Spa University also showed that the Diploma helped Service leavers in their transition from military to civilian life. It does this by bringing together adults looking to transition to a new life. The Diploma is different to other qualifications in that it also uses the experience and life skills of the students taking it – for example, students use their skills to support one another and manage their time. The most recent data show that Access to HE students are less likely to leave their degree courses than mature students with other qualifications.

‘Walking into the course on my first day was very nerve-racking after such a long time away from formal education. However, I was amazed to discover that I wasn’t the oldest person there and other students had similar life experiences to mine.’
Chris Healey

Retired policeman Chris Healey started an Access to HE course in 2007 after taking on a number of unfulfilling consultancy roles. He took a course in politics, history, American studies and business studies before taking a degree in archaeology.

‘Access to HE taught me how to study and learn properly’
Chris Healey

Access to HE Diplomas are available in a wide range of subjects, from engineering to nursing. More than 1,000 QAA-recognised Access to HE Diplomas are listed on the database on the Access to HE website. You can search by subject, college or location. Most Diplomas are taught in further education colleges. However, they are also available from private training providers, some of whom offer distance learning study options.

Paying for your course

Service leavers have a number of 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 course)
  • Advanced Learner Loan.

Advanced Learner Loan repayments don’t start until you start to earn more than £21,000 per year. If you achieve a QAA-recognised Access to HE course the balance of the loan will be written off when you complete your higher education studies.

Advanced Learner Loans attract interest from the time your first payment is made until the loan is paid back in full. Interest is charged at the rate of inflation plus up to 3% (as shown in the following table).

Many universities and charities also offer bursaries to provide some financial support for students, to pay for things like course materials, travel or childcare. To find out more about bursaries, speak to your course provider. Transition charities may also be able to help. It is important to look at 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.


Find out more

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

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