Making HE Choices

There are literally hundreds of institutions offering over 50,000 higher level courses in the UK, a significant number of which are in Greater London. Choosing which one(s) to apply to may seem quite daunting. So how do you go about working out which are the best for you?

The starting point

While some learners will have a very clear idea from the start what they want to study in HE and where they want to study it, for the majority of potential HE learners a great deal of time and effort needs to be put into making sure that they make informed choices that are best for them.

Even if you think you have a clear idea of what you want to do it’s likely that you will still need to research your choices carefully. For example, if you are planning to apply to study Nursing, you will need to decide which branch (i.e. Child, Adult Learning Disability, Mental Health) you want to apply to. If you are studying other Access to HE Diploma subjects like Computing, Business or Science there are a wide range of related HE courses and careers out there for you to consider.

To help you narrow down your options and find the right course for you, have a look at the following suggestions:

Think carefully about your personal circumstances and responsibilities. Adult learners in particular will need to think about the consequences on work, social life and home life and consider carefully how they plan their time effectively. Are there things you need to consider that might affect where and how (e.g. full time or part time) you study? For example, if you need to stay fairly close to home how far could you realistically commute to study and how long would the journey be to the HE institutions you are thinking of applying to?

Take time to reflect on your skills and abilities before choosing and applying for a course. Being aware of your own skills and indeed areas for improvement will help you choose the course that is right for you and will assist you in making a strong application. Evidence of skills needed in HE (e.g. communication, team work, problem-solving, organisational) can be gathered from previous experience of work, education, interests and life in general. For example, a parent who has managed to juggle work and study effectively as well as raising children could highlight this to show evidence of effective time management skills.

Think carefully about your long-term career plans. Do you have a career in mind? If so you will need to find out whether you will have to study a particular subject or not (e.g. Social Work, Nursing) or if studying a specific course will shorten your professional training (e.g. Law). It’s important that you spend time researching your career choice, including relevant websites, i.e. general careers websites and professional bodies, to find out more about what the job involves including where you might work, pay and working conditions, skills and qualities needed and entry routes and opportunities for career progression. It is also useful to keep up to date with recent developments in the career via newspapers and professional body websites and if possible speaking to people currently working in the job and/or gaining relevant work experience. Not only will this help to ensure this is the right career for you but it will also assist you in writing an effective personal statement. For example, when you explain why studying a particular course will help you with your long-term career plans or for a job-related course like physiotherapy or social work, that you can show a clear understanding of the profession.

If you aren’t clear about what career you want to pursue you could try an online quiz. The Prospects website, for example, has a Career Planner which helps users to matches skills, motivations and career desires to job roles over 400 possible job roles. You should also speak to your college careers adviser for advice and further information. If you still aren’t sure about your future career but do know you want to study at a higher level, it’s re-assuring to know that many graduate employers do not specify that the applicant has studied a particular subject. The Prospects website provides examples of graduate opportunities from a wide range of different subjects.

Choosing what to study

There are over 50,000 courses both academic and vocational (job-related) offered by universities, colleges and private HE providers. These can be divided by Academic and Vocational courses. Academic courses include art, maths, English, science, as well as less well-known ones like American studies, anthropology and philosophy. Vocational courses can be divided into those which are broadly vocational, e.g. media, business, computing, health studies, and courses that lead to a professional qualification either on completion or with further training like architecture, law, nursing, physiotherapy, social work and surveying.

It’s worth noting that HE courses with the same name can be very different in content depending on which institution you actually study at. This makes it all the more important to do your research properly.

Courses can lead to a number of qualifications such as an undergraduate degree, a foundation degree, a higher national certificate or diploma and can be studied full-time, part-time or by distance learning, or blended learning or by work-based learning. You will need to consider which qualification you want to obtain and how you want to study it. A number of HE courses also include the opportunity to gain a professional qualification as part of the course. For example, some HE business courses include the opportunity to complete a management qualification as part of the course.

Entry requirements vary according to who offers the course and the actual subject studied. Generally speaking the more popular a course and institution the higher the entry requirements. Successful completion of a level 3 course, like an Access to HE Diploma, is the standard entry requirement. Institutions will also be interested in what maths and/or English qualifications you have achieved, including GCSEs or equivalents.

HE courses are also assessed in a variety of ways. Some are traditional in structure and are assessed at the end of each year by written examinations. Others for example are modular in structure, with courses made up of a series of modules that are assessed individually. When researching courses in HE you should find out how they are taught and assessed.

How long it takes to complete a higher level course will vary according to the qualification, subject and how it is studied – i.e. part time or full time. For example a higher national diploma will usually take 2 years to complete full time whereas a part time degree course can last between 4-6 years. Full time degree courses typically last 3 years but some will take 4-5 years to complete.

Some HE institutions are now offering condensed (also known as intensive) degrees lasting two years rather than three, allowing you to complete your degree more quickly and potentially with less debt.

A number of courses offered give you the opportunity to study more than one subject. These are usually referred to as joint or combined courses, or modular courses which are the most flexible.

Some courses include work placements, ‘sandwich’ years or years abroad studying. Sandwich courses are mainly in areas such as science, engineering, construction, IT and business.

Choosing where to study

Your choice of course may narrow down your options depending on what you want to study. For example if you want to study Occupational Therapy, there are only two institutions that offer this course in London. On the other hand if you are interested in say business studies, the majority of institutions offer some form of business course so you will still be faced with a large choice of places to study at. Don’t forget that as well as universities most further education colleges also offer HE courses.

Location is also a key factor that may limit which institutions to apply to. If you plan to study locally find out exactly where the course is delivered and how long it would take to commute there. It’s worth mentioning though that study by distance learning will not usually require any attendance at an institution and learners working and studying on work based programmes often don’t step foot in an institution during their studies.

How you plan to study will also narrow down your options. Not all institutions offer part time higher level courses and even less offer distance learning as an option, for example.

While entry requirements will differ by course some institutions in general will be harder to get into than others. This will also, depending on what grades you expect to achieve, potentially narrow down your options.

The perceived reputation of the HE institution is also a factor for many students. There are a number of league tables which list institutions on varying criteria and some also break this down by subject as well. It’s worth knowing that there are no official league tables out there and that each one will use different weightings and priorities to come up with the lists.

If you do use league tables to help you decide make sure that you compare both the main institution league tables as well as the subject tables. Wherever an institution sits in the league table you will find that they will all offer some subjects that do well in the subject tables. Popular HE league tables include The Complete University Guide, the Times newspaper which includes the Times university league tables (please note that this is now a subscription website) and the Guardian newspaper which includes their university league tables.

Other factors you may or may not want to consider are whether the HE institution is in a mission group and what students who have completed their HE course go on to do.

Many UK universities are part of a group, called a mission group. These include the Russell Group, University Alliance and Million +. Some universities choose not to be part of any group – and this shouldn’t be viewed negatively.

What do students who have completed this course go on to do? The government Discover Uni website includes data on the most recent Graduate Outcomes Survey from students 15 months after they finish their course, as well as The Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data which shows earnings data for the same group of students three and five years after their graduation, by broad subject area.

Entry requirements: what do you need to get in?

Each HE institution sets its own entry requirements which will differ from course to course. Popular courses and/or HE institutions where there are lots of applicants usually have higher entry requirements.

Applicants normally need to have studied or be studying a level 3 qualification to apply to HE. Most HE institutions will also be interested in what GCSE subjects you have studied and what grades you achieved, particularly in English and maths, although some might accept alternative qualifications like functional skills. They will usually ask for a grade 4 or occasionally 5 (A-C grades in the old GCSE grades). In some cases, including for some Nursing and Midwifery courses, HE institutions will expect applicants to have already met the entry requirements for maths and English GCSE or equivalent by the time they apply.

While some HE institutions will just ask an applicant to have successfully completed an Access to HE Diploma course, most will ask for a certain number of passes, merits and distinctions. Some HE institutions use the UCAS tariff to ask for an overall points score. On the UCAS website you can find a UCAS Tariff Calculator which you can use to work out how many tariff points different combinations of passes, merits and distinctions are worth:

Some HE institutions, particularly for courses that are competitive to get onto, will ask for all 45 level 3 credits to be either at merit or distinction – or a combination of the two.

Entry requirements for more vocational (job-related) courses may also ask for relevant work experience and in some cases, especially for nursing and related health courses, an Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service clearance.

For performing arts courses, including dance and drama, an audition is usually part of the application process. For art and design courses, a portfolio of work may well need to be submitted on application and/or brought to an interview.

Some higher education institutions require learners to pass an admissions test as well for certain subjects. These include medicine, law and maths. Cambridge and Oxford universities also have admissions tests for their courses. Further details for these tests are provided by UCAS.

The vast majority of nursing, midwifery and allied health profession courses also include literacy and numeracy tests as part of their application process.

For some courses, including a number of part time, distance learning and work based learning courses, entry requirements are often more flexible, particularly for mature learners.

Entry onto a higher or degree apprenticeship in most cases is very competitive. Entry requirements are often expressed in the form of A-level requirements, although many mention or “equivalent qualifications”. If you are planning to apply for a higher or a degree apprenticeship and the entry requirements aren’t clear, it’s worth contacting the company to check before applying.

Making HE choices checklist

To think about:

  • Your personal circumstances – e.g. do you need to study close to home or fit studying in with working in a job?
  • Your career plans – research what career(s) you are interested in. Find out about what the job involves and where might you work, entry routes, pay and working conditions, skills and qualities needed, opportunities for career progression
  • The type of qualification you want to study (e.g. Degree, Higher National Diploma, Foundation Degree)
  • Your preferred mode of study (e.g. full-time or part-time/distance learning/in the workplace)
  • Whether you want to study one subject (single) or combined with another (e.g. joint / major/minor/combined) or a modular degree
  • If you are interested in a work placement, e.g. sandwich degree, or study options abroad, forming part of your HE course
  • If a higher or degree apprenticeship interests you

To find out:

  • Which HE institutions offer your chosen subject and what are the entry requirements?
  • Course content – courses with the same name offered by different HE institutions can sometimes be very different!
  • How much the tuition fees are and what bursaries, scholarships, fee waivers etc. may be offered
  • If the course will help you progress your career plans?
  • If they are asking for any work-related experience, IT skills, health check or for some courses where you will work with people, Enhanced Disclosure Barring Service clearance
  • How the course is taught (e.g. lectures, seminars, practicals, placements, online etc.)?
  • How the course is assessed (e.g. exams and/or coursework)? What would suit you best?
  • How long is the course and what are the hours of attendance? How much study time is expected in addition to contact time?
  • How flexible is the course? Can you choose from a wide variety of modules? Can you switch from full-time to part-time and vice versa?
  • Academic facilities, e.g. library & IT services, laboratories, studios
  • Social facilities: sports, clubs and societies etc.
  • Student support services – e.g. help with study skills support/financial advice/counselling/support for students with disabilities
  • Perceived “reputation” of institution – e.g. university league tables
  • What links the institution has with employers
  • Exactly where the course is taught – a number of HEIs have several sites (which may be close by or a number of miles away) or may deliver some of the course at a FE college
  • Graduate employment prospects
  • When you can visit – it’s important to attend open days or subject-specific days to find out more about the course and give you a better feel for the institution

Read the next section: Applying to Higher Education as an Adult

Read the previous section: Introduction to Higher Education

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