Introduction to Higher Education

As an Access to HE Diploma student you will probably want to start at university the term after you achieve your Access to HE Diploma. Consequently, you do not have the luxury of time to think and reflect that students on a two year level 3 course, like A-levels or a BTEC National have, when it comes to spending time researching and applying to higher education.

Getting started

As an Access to HE Diploma student you will probably want to start at university the term after you achieve your Access to HE Diploma. Consequently, you do not have the luxury of time to think and reflect that students on a two year level 3 course, like A-levels or a BTEC National have, when it comes to spending time researching and applying to higher education.

If you have been out of education for some time you may also need to get up to speed with changes to the higher education sector, for example higher education finance, qualifications and terminology in general. So as well as getting through enrolment and induction and settling in you will need to start planning your next steps after the Access course has ended.

However, on a more positive note, it’s likely that when compared with younger applicants, you will have lots more experience of the real world, for example paid work and voluntary work. These experiences can provide valuable evidence that you are developing the skills that higher education institutions look for in an applicant.

Applicants with experience of the world of work can, for example, add a great deal to discussions including seminars and tutorials. For a number of higher education courses having relevant work experience also makes for a much stronger application and may be a pre-requisite in some cases. These include nursing, midwifery, allied health professions and social work.

Older applicants are also usually more focused in what they plan to study and their career aims and bring a level of maturity and determination to succeed that is sometimes lacking in younger learners.

It’s also important to note that if you have taken out an Advanced Learner Loan then the loan for your Access to HE Diploma will be written off on successful completion of a higher education course. This only applies to learners who have completed an Access to HE Diploma.

UCAS Terms Explained

UCAS Undergraduate: Getting Started

UCAS Mature Undergraduate Students

The Uni Guide

What do we mean by Higher Education?

Higher education (HE) is any study above a level 3 qualification, for example above Access to HE Diplomas, Advanced Apprenticeships, A-levels, BTEC Nationals, NVQ level 3 and a range of professional qualifications. It can also be called higher level learning, particularly when referring to learners studying in the workplace.

UK higher education offers a wide range of courses and qualifications, from levels 4-8. Level 4-6 qualifications are usually referred to as undergraduate qualifications. These include degrees (level 6), higher national diplomas (L5), and foundation degrees (L5). Level 7-8 qualifications, known as postgraduate qualifications, include master’s degrees and PhDs.

Most courses are taught in universities, but a significant number are also taught at colleges, as well as specialist course providers such as conservatoires, business schools and agricultural colleges. In fact, one in ten HE students studies in a further education college.

You can study full-time or part-time. There are also distance and blended learning courses, as well as some accelerated degree programmes.

A wide range of courses can be studied from academic courses, such as English, history and maths, to courses with a vocational focus, for example teaching, nursing and sports coaching.

HE in the UK has changed significantly over the past thirty years. The number of students studying at universities and colleges has increased dramatically, with over two million students at higher education institutions today.

Nearly half of all entrants to full time undergraduate study now enter with qualifications other than A-levels alone. This includes a significant number of Access to HE Diploma learners. Higher education is part of ‘lifelong learning’, which extends through an adult’s working life and sometimes into retirement.

Higher level study can also be undertaken in work, for example, as part of a higher or degree apprenticeship or via a sponsored degree.

UCAS: How To Choose The Right Undergraduate Course For You Universities & Higher Education

What are the benefits of completing a Higher Education Course?

There are a number of potential benefits that higher education (HE) can offer:

  • The vast majority of research on graduate earnings shows that having a HE qualification means that you are very likely to earn more in your career even when you take into account the increased costs of studying and that you are also less likely to be unemployed
  • A higher level qualification is an absolute must for a number of professions, such as medicine, dentistry, chartered engineering, nursing, social work and architecture, and increasingly preferred for entry to a number of other professions
  • Access to the wider jobs market. In 2021 59% of working age Londoners hold a higher-level qualification (level 4+). This is likely to rise further in the future
  • HE develops a number of transferable skills highly valued by employers including verbal and written communication skills, numeracy, interpersonal skills, ICT skills, organisational and time management skills, and analytical and critical thinking skills
  • Studying in HE also provides students with the opportunity to study a subject of interest in depth and encourages them to see the world from different perspectives.

However, learners considering higher level study need to appreciate that having a HE qualification comes with no guarantees in the graduate labour market. Graduate earnings are influenced by a number of factors including what you study, your choice of career and the overall grade on completion of your HE course.

UCAS: Why Choose Higher Education?

HE Finance

The cost of a course will depend on the type of course, where you are studying and the length of the course. As a general rule, universities tend to charge the maximum fee (£9,250 in 2023-24) for an undergraduate degree. The course fees for a foundation degree or a higher national diploma tend to be lower. Remember it may also be more expensive if you do not live at home as your living costs will probably be higher.

All eligible students, no matter what their household income is, can apply for a Tuition Fee Loan to cover the full cost of fees and a Maintenance Loan to help with living costs. There are also a range of grants and allowances that can be applied for that don’t have to be paid back. These include:

  • Parents’ Learning Allowance (PLA) is help with course-related costs if you have children who depend on you
  • Adult Dependants’ Grant (ADG) helps with the additional costs that you may have if you’re financially responsible for another adult
  • Disabled Student Allowances are grants to help pay the extra essential costs you may have as a direct result of your disability. This includes: a long-term health condition, mental-health condition, or specific learning difficulty, such dyslexia or dyspraxia
  • Childcare Grants can help with childcare costs if you’ve got a dependent child

Most institutions also offer bursaries and scholarships (which don’t need to be paid back) targeted at certain applicants and specific courses. You should contact the institution(s) you are planning to apply to and ask for further information.

It’s important to remember that on successful completion of a HE course, Access to HE Diploma learners who have previously taken out an Advanced Learner Loan will have the loan for the Access to HE Diploma written off. This includes all courses eligible for SFE funding: HNCs, HNDs, Foundation Degrees, Undergraduate Degrees, pre-registration healthcare courses, and postgraduate healthcare courses.

You’ll only start making repayments, after you finish your HE course and if your income is over the repayment threshold, which is currently £25,000 a year. For example, if a student earns £28,000 a year before tax, they will make a monthly repayment of approximately £22 per month. Your monthly repayments are based on what you earn, not what you owe so you pay your loan back gradually over many years.

You should be aware that as soon as you start studying, your tuition fee loan and maintenance loan start to accrue interest. The interest rate is linked to the rate of inflation as measured by the Retail Price Index (RPI). It is set at the start of each academic year based on the RPI from the previous March. It is important to remember that while interest will affect how long it takes to repay your loan completely, it does not affect the amount you repay each week, month or year as this is based on what you earn, nothing else. After 40 years, if you have not repaid all of your loan – including the interest that has been added – then it is cancelled, and your repayments will automatically stop.

The Student Room – Student Finance: contains a wealth of information on going on to HE including detailed HE Finance information. – Student Finance:  for information and applications

Student Finance England Resources:

HE Qualifications

What qualifications can you study?

Honours (Bachelors) Degrees (level 6)

This is the most well-known HE qualification. They usually take 3 years full time or 4 years (4-6 part-time) if the degree course includes a period of study abroad or on a work placement (often as part of what are called sandwich courses). They are usually called a Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BSc) although some degrees have their own title like Bachelor of Medicine (MB). Some institutions are now offering degree courses in less time – referred to as accelerated or intensive degree courses.

Foundation Degrees (level 5)

Often studied at a further education college, they are available in a range of vocational (job related) subjects and are usually studied while in employment, but are also often available as a full time course. They are roughly equal to the first two years of a degree and it is possible to gain a BA/BSc degree qualification with further study.

Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) (Level 5) and Higher National Certificates (HNCs) (level 4)

HNDs and HNCs are usually offered by FE colleges (as well as some universities) and are available in a variety of vocational subjects. HNDs are roughly equal to the first two years of a degree, HNCs the first year. It is usually possible to continue studying after an HND or HNC to gain a degree. HNCs are usually studied part time over two years by learners who are also working, but in some cases can be completed in a year.

Higher Education Certificates (level 4) & Diplomas (level 5)

Certificates of Higher Education are usually academic, rather than vocational qualifications. They are roughly equivalent to a first year of a degree or an HNC and usually take a year of full time study to complete. They are offered by some but not all HE institutions. Higher Education Diplomas are available in a range of subjects and usually take two years full time. They appeal in particular to learners who want to further their knowledge but who are not ready or willing to commit to a full degree programme. They can potentially be topped up to a full degree with further study.

Professional qualifications (level 4 upwards)

Professional qualifications are qualifications awarded directly by professional bodies. They can often be studied alongside other HE qualifications or while working via part time or distance learning. Many industries have professional qualifications at level 4 and above, for example in areas such as accountancy, advertising, banking, marketing and sport. What qualification Levels Mean

Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs)

HTQs are either new or existing Level 4 and 5 qualifications (such as HNDs/Foundation Degrees/Diploma HE) that have been approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education as meeting occupational standards for the relevant sector. These qualifications have been developed by awarding bodies in collaboration with employers and businesses so that students get the specific training, knowledge and skills required for their chosen career.

The first teaching of approved HTQs will be available from September 2022 starting with Digital, then Construction and Health and Science in 2023, with full roll-out over a four-year period.

Approved courses will show the HTQ logo or banner.

Where can you study?


Universities still provide the majority of higher level courses across the UK offering a wide range of academic and vocational (job related) courses on a full time as well as part time basis. No two universities are the same. They can range from relatively small universities which focus on specific subject areas and are based mainly at one site, to large multi-campus institutions offering a wide range of subjects with tens of thousands of learners. Most (but not all) universities have formed themselves into “like-minded” groups. These groups are commonly referred to as mission groups and include GuildHE, MillionPlus, the Russell Group and the University Alliance.

Further Education Colleges

With around 1 in 10 of all HE students studying at a further education college, this is an increasingly popular choice for learners. Further Education Colleges tend to offer mainly vocational qualifications, including higher national diplomas and certificates and foundation degrees. Some also offer undergraduate degrees. Most have links with universities, which means that students who have successful completed a HND or foundation degree can “top up” with further study to a full undergraduate degree.

While some learners may be keen to study in a more traditional HE setting, particularly those looking for the full “campus” experience, there are a number of factors that attract learners to study a higher level course at a further education college. These can include cost, location, familiarity, smaller class sizes and more contact time with staff.

Studying at an Overseas University

If you are thinking about some form of study abroad, you have several options: study or work in another country as part of a UK degree; as part of an exchange scheme e.g. the new Turing Scheme, which replaces ERASMUS, offered by many HE institutions; as a sandwich year; a year abroad or studying an entire degree abroad.

Alternative Higher Level Learning Options

It’s not all about going away to study a full time degree at a university…

Higher level qualifications can be studied not only full time but also on a part time basis. Part time courses can, depending on the institution, be studied in the day, during the evening or at weekends. They can also be studied by distance learning and by blended learning, which combines online study with face to face contact with HE staff.

HE qualifications include not only degrees, but foundation degrees, higher national certificates and diplomas as well as professional qualifications needed to progress in a specific career.

Going on to HE doesn’t just mean studying at a university. A number of HE qualifications can be studied at further education colleges as well as at home (or anywhere that suits) by distance learning.

A significant number of HE learners are in full time employment. They might, for example, study a part time evening course in their own time, a distance learning course, or be sponsored by their employer to complete a HE qualification that will help them in their work. Learning at work can also take place as part of a Higher or Degree Apprenticeship, or as part of school or college leaver programme.

It is also possible to combine HE study with a work placement, for example a sandwich degree.

What qualification and what subject you choose to study and where, and how you study, will be some of the key things you will need to consider if you do decide to apply.

Alternatives to Full-Time HE Study


UCAS: Alternatives To Higher Education

Not Going To Uni

All About School Leavers: School Leaver Options

Part-Time and Distance Learning:

UCAS: Distance Learning And Part-Time Study

Learning at Work:

Middlesex University: Professional Practice & Work-Based Learning

OpenLearn: Free Open University Courses

Sponsored Degrees:

UCAS: The Complete Guide To Sponsored Degrees

All About School Leavers: What is a Sponsored Degree Programme?

Higher and Degree Apprenticeships: Higher & Degree Apprenticeships

UCAS: Apprenticeships

Sandwich Courses:

Bright Knowledge: What is a sandwich course?

Read the next sections of the Applying to Higher Education as an Adult guidance, produced in partnership with Linking London: Making HE Choices and Applying to HE.

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