What, where, how to study

Types of courses

Find out what is meant by 'higher education level study' and the range of course options available to you.

Higher education means any study from Level 4 (which is equivalent, in level, to the first year of a university course) upwards – this can include short courses, a range of degrees, occupational courses and even postgraduate qualifications. Courses are delivered through universities, colleges and some training providers. Use the Lifepilot Find a provider tool to find organisations in the South of England that offer courses at Level 4 and beyond.  

There are some courses that help adults prepare for higher education level study that do not require formal qualifications on entry e.g. Access to Higher Education courses, many programmes offered by The Open University and some courses with foundation years.

If you don't feel ready for higher education or one of the preparatory courses then you might want to start with a course related to a personal interest without the pressure of doing a qualification, or by brushing up on your literacy, numeracy or IT skills.

There are also courses and programmes that help people develop or extend their skills and knowledge in a particular job area, such as apprenticeships, and many Foundation Degrees and HNC/HNDs.

Whatever your starting point, think about what you want to get out of a course and your own needs and circumstances.

If you need help choosing the right course, you can get support from a National Careers Service adviser.

Finding the type of course to suit your needs

What you choose, and the way you study, will depend on what you want and need from a qualification.

The better the match between what you choose and your personal ambitions and interests, the more chance you’ll be able to keep yourself going and succeed. 

Explore the different types of courses on offer and complete the Lifepilot Higher Skills Map tool to start thinking about what is important to you. The qualification planner will help you establish the level of your current qualifications, what qualification you could do next and what's involved in taking different qualifications.

Access to Higher Education courses

Access to Higher Education Diplomas are designed to prepare students for higher education level study. They are aimed at adults without Level 3 qualifications (i.e. A Levels, BTEC Level 3 Nationals, Level 3/Advanced Apprenticeship etc). They are mainly offered at further education colleges.

Most Access courses can be completed in one academic year on a full-time basis. Some can be taken part-time (e.g. in the evenings) or by distance learning. 

Some colleges offer courses to help you return to study and to prepare to start an Access course.

Foundation Degrees

Foundation Degrees are designed in partnership with employers and higher education institutions. They aim to equip people with the knowledge and understanding to achieve academic results, as well as develop the skills and knowledge for their chosen career area.

Foundation Degrees are an option if you are already working and want to further your career, if you are returning to work, or if you want to change your career.

Foundation Degrees combine study with workplace learning, so if you are in relevant employment, you can use your role to provide evidence of your learning and for project work. 

There are no set entry requirements for Foundation Degrees. Relevant commercial and industrial experience is valued.

A full-time Foundation Degree course usually takes two years to complete; a part-time programme normally takes longer. 

After completing a Foundation Degree, many students go on to a full Honours Degree; this usually takes one further year of study.

You can find out more about Foundation Degrees and search for courses on the UCAS website. Just one example is the Foundation Degree in Graphic Design and Digital Arts at City of Bristol College.


Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) and Higher National Certificates (HNCs) are work-related courses available in a wide range of vocational areas. They can be taken through universities and colleges.  

HNDs are usually full-time programmes that take two years to complete. HNCs usually take one year full time or two years part time. Higher National qualifications can sometimes be taken on a sandwich basis, i.e. include an industrial placement.

It may be possible to progress from an HND/HNC to the second or third year of an Honours Degree course and this will depend on individual institution's entry requirements. 

Entry requirements for an HND/HNC vary; relevant professional or technical experience is often taken into account.

An example of a Higher National qualification is the HNC in Engineering at University Centre Weston

Honours Degree courses

An Honours Degree course leads to a qualification such as a bachelor of arts (BA), bachelor of science (BSc) or bachelor of law (LLB). Courses typically take three years to complete full time (or four years for certain programmes such as sandwich degrees or courses that include a year abroad).

You can study for an Honours Degree on a full-time or part-time basis at a college or university, or more flexibly in your own time, e.g. through The Open University, where you build up credits. 

Many colleges work in partnership with local universities that quality assure their higher education programmes. This means you may be able to take a full Honours Degree at your local college, but receive accreditation from a university. An example is the Graphics Design at City of Bristol College awarded by the University of Plymouth, which is a 2 year Foundation Degree followed by a third year to get your Honours Degree. You can often also benefit from access to the university’s resources, such as their library facilities. 

Applications for full-time Honours Degree courses – whether run at a college or university – are made through UCAS.

Competence-based qualifications e.g. NVQs

You may be able to achieve a qualification mainly through the assessment of your ability (i.e. your competence) to do a particular job in the workplace. 

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and similar competence-based qualifications are available at different levels, including Level 4 and above. 

You will have to produce evidence to demonstrate your skills, e.g. through observations by an assessor and the development of a portfolio of work.


Apprenticeships offer an opportunity to learn on the job (whilst being paid), build up your knowledge and skills, and usually gain competence-based and/or other qualifications. You can progress from one level of apprenticeship to another or use the apprenticeship as a stepping stone into a full-time higher education course.

Higher and Degree Apprenticeships lead to higher education qualifications.

Professional and specialist qualifications

There are lots of courses at different levels and sizes that could help you develop the knowledge and skills related to (or necessary for) your current or future job role. Such work-related courses can be taken in the workplace, at local colleges or training providers, or through distance learning.

Colleges and other learning providers often work directly with national awarding bodies – such as Pearson, OCR or City & Guilds – and professional bodies – e.g. the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) or The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) – to offer these programmes, sometimes in response to local or regional demand. 

Short courses are also available at different levels, e.g. through professional bodies or colleges. Sometimes it’s possible to build up credits towards a full qualification through a series of short courses.

If you are in a job, your employer may fund some or all of the costs associated with you doing a professional or specialist course; they may also allow you time off to study. Employers are aware that you may have to hold a particular qualification to do your job or to progress in your career. 

Postgraduate courses

Postgraduate qualifications (which are at Levels 7 and 8) generally require applicants to hold an Honours Degree or to have had professional experience in their chosen field. Admissions staff will want to be sure that you can cope with learning at the highest of levels.

Postgraduate courses can be taken on a full-time, part-time or distance-learning basis. They can lead to qualifications such as a postgraduate diploma, master’s degree or doctorate.

To learn more about postgraduate programmes, look at individual university websites, or visit UCAS.

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