Higher Education in the UK
What is higher education?
Higher education in the UK is defined as the continuation of studies after the age of 18 and is considered to be the third and final level of education after leaving school following primary and secondary levels. Higher education is also commonly referred to as tertiary or post-secondary and is undertaken in order to progress towards a degree qualification.
The UK education system
The UK education system comprises of four key parts – primary, secondary, further education, and higher education.
Primary is undertaken between the ages 5 & 11 years in England and consists of school years reception to year 6. The goal of primary is to cover Key Stages 1 to 2 and help develop a child’s foundation in areas such as reading, writing, speech, and numeracy as well as fostering development in other areas such as creativity and communication skills.
Secondary in England is for those aged between 11 & 16 years and covers Key Stages 3 to 4 through to GCSE’s. The Scottish equivalent to GCSE’s is National Qualifications (NQ) and generally pupils will take between 8-10 GCSE’s and NQ’s. The purpose of secondary at school is to further knowledge and development and subject choices at this level often go on to impact a student’s path for further and higher education.
2.3 Further education
Further education, often confused with higher education, is undertaken directly after secondary at a sixth form or college and comprises of additional schooling in pursuit of either A-levels, Scottish Highers, BTEC’s, GNVQ’s or other vocational courses and apprenticeships. Further education in the UK is free for students aged between 16 & 19 and compulsory up to the age of 18. If you are planning on attending university, you must pursue further education.
2.4 Higher education
Higher education is the continuation of studies post further education at university or college and there are a variety of paths that can be taken and qualifications to be obtained, all of which may heavily influence your future career prospects, so it is important to take the time to carefully consider and understand which option is best for you. The type of higher education that you will be able to enter into will be dependent on whether or not you satisfy the entry requirements for a specific course.
Types of higher education
There are multiple types of higher education in the UK and deciphering the difference between them can be confusing. The main higher education types alongside a brief description to help you know the difference are:
- Foundation degree – duration 1 year. Common route if you would like to undertake a bachelor’s degree but have not met the entry requirements. Following completion will allow you to progress to the next level of the course. Can also be a standalone qualification.
- Bachelor’s degree – duration 3 (sometimes 4) years. Direct entry after further education if you meet the entry requirements such as 3 A levels, BTEC grades or UCAS points. Types of bachelor’s degree are BSc (Bachelor of Science), BEng (Bachelor of Engineering), BA (Bachelor of Arts) and BEd (Bachelor of Education).
- Master’s degree – duration 1 (sometimes 2) years. Postgraduate level after completion of a bachelor’s degree. Types include MSc (Master of Science), MBA (Master of Business Administration), MA (Master of Arts) and LLM (Master of Law).
- Higher National Certificate (HNC) and Higher National Diploma (HND) – duration 1 to 2 years. A HNC course is one year and comparable to the first year of university whilst a HND course is 2 years and is equivalent to year 1 and 2 of university. Following a HND you may be able to enter university and continue your studies without having to undertake the first 2 years of a degree. HNC’s and HND’s are vocational courses covering a wide range of subjects from engineering to photography.
- Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE) and Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE) – duration 1 to 2 years. A DipHE is a popular qualification similar to a HND in that it is equivalent to the first 2 years of a university course. A CertHE is similar to the HNC and equates to the first year of university. The main difference between HNC/HND and CertHE and DipHE are the assessment methods, with the former being assessed via practical methods such as projects and presentations and the latter focused largely on exams and coursework.
- National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) Level 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8 – duration 6 to 8 months. NVQ Level 4 & 5 are equivalent to undergraduate level qualifications whilst level 6, 7 and 8 correspond to graduate, postgraduate and doctoral level respectively. NVQs are popular qualifications as they offer a high level of higher education flexibility to a student and are usually completed whilst at the workplace and often do not have specific time constraints to be completed in or stringent entry requirements.
The majority of higher education will take place at an approved college or university and many courses offer the option to study part-time or full-time, meaning that you can fit your studies around a job or other commitments such as childcare if you choose. Some institutions, such as the College of Contract Management in Farnham, offer further higher education flexibility, with the choice to complete a Diploma or HND in specialised subjects such as Cyber Security, Accounting and Finance and Structural Engineering whilst studying during the evenings and weekends, with lectures also recorded so you can catch up at your convenience.
Choosing the right higher education for you
When considering which form of higher education is best for you, consider whether you are looking to make a full-time or part-time commitment to your studies, do you want or need to work alongside study (though this may prolong the course duration) or would you take it as a faster pace and complete it in the shortest time possible. Also consider which assessment method you prefer, whether it be practical assessment in the workplace, presentations, coursework, or exams.
It is best to start thinking about higher education as early as possible, as the choices you make for further education, such as which A Levels you choose, will impact whether you are eligible to meet the entry requirements for a higher education course.
Though it is not always easy to plan for your future career at a young age, having a general idea of which sector you would like to go into, such as engineering, will help to guide your choices such as taking A Level Maths and Physics in order to get onto an engineering bachelor’s course. Once you have laid a foundation, you can later decide which specific sector you would like to study, such as civil, mechanical, or aerospace engineering. Alternately, if you are one of the lucky people who know at a young age exactly what career path you would like to take, this is great and gives you more time to plan your higher education.
Of course, higher education is not just for those who have just finished college or other further education! Higher education can be embarked upon at any age and any time, whether it be to enhance existing qualifications or to completely change career and is often a good idea in order to gain specialist knowledge in a subject area. Whatever the reason, higher education is always a good idea and adds value to your qualifications and career.