Routes into higher education

Higher education courses can be studied at university, university colleges or in Further Education colleges. Higher education qualifications range from Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and diplomas to Postgraduate awards and Master’s degrees.

Higher education study to suit you

Many higher education courses can now be studied in flexible ways. There are different study types, work combinations and part-time options to suit busy lifestyles.

With  local further education (FE) colleges offering more options and more institutions offering distance learning (a combination of online and face to face sessions with online learning), you may find that you don't have to travel far to study a higher education qualification.

There are many paths leading into higher education, whether you're a young first time learner, mature student or returning to learning – it’s all about studying in a way that suits you.

There are also a number of support mechanisms and benefits that you may be entitled to which can help you gain the qualification you seek.

Qualifications needed to study in higher education

Institutions set their own entry requirements for higher education courses, so they vary widely. Prospectuses often refer mainly to A levels but many also accept vocational qualifications like NVQs or BTECs which can be equivalent to A levels. Institutions may also take your life and work experience into account.

Depending on the course, UK students may be able to enter higher education with a range of qualifications which include, but are not limited to:


You may also be able to enter higher education by completing a Foundation or Access course. See sections below for more information. 

If you already have a Higher Education qualification

If you already have a higher education qualification like a Higher National Certificate (HNC) or Higher National Diploma (HND), you may be able to enter a first degree course at the start of the second or third year.

To study for an HNC or HND, you will need some previous qualifications. Most HND courses require one A level or an equivalent qualification.

If you have a Foundation degree, you may be able to enter a degree course at the start of the third or final year. Entry requirements for a Foundation degree will depend on the course and the college. They will normally be A levels or vocational equivalents such as BTEC National Diplomas.

 If you don't have any formal qualifications

If you have no formal qualifications but can show you have relevant experience, skills and aptitudes, you may also be considered through a process known as Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL).

In exceptional circumstances, the APEL process has been approved for admission to specific programmes in some universities and colleges on a case-by-case basis.  

If you don't have the qualifications needed but have experience the university or college think is relevant to a particular programme, you may be considered for admission. However, this would be for the university or college to decide.

If you are applying under APEL, you may need to provide proof of your experience or sit a module or task set by the university or college. Contact your chosen university or college for further details on the APEL process.

If you have a particular course in mind

If you already have a particular full-time higher education course in mind, you can look up the entry requirements on the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) website.  There you will find undergraduate and postgraduate courses as well as Foundation degree courses. UCAS however, does not include information about HNC and HND courses.

Universities and colleges use a points-based system called the ‘UCAS Tariff’ to set entry requirements. The tariff assigns a number value to a wide range of qualifications, so that colleges and universities can compare the achievements of different candidates.

Institutions also have information on their own website in regard to admissions so you can check with them directly by using the links on the page below:

Students from outside the United Kingdom

If you are a student from outside the UK, you may be able to get onto a higher education course if you have qualifications which are considered to be equivalent to A- Levels.

These may include the International Baccalaureate (IB), the European Baccalaureate (EB) and the Irish Leaving Certificate. It is advisable to check as early as possible with the institution that you wish to study at to see if your qualifications meet their admissions requirements.

Access courses

Access  courses prepare people without traditional qualifications for higher education study. Many are designed and accredited by universities but delivered by further education colleges. However some universities, such as the Open University, deliver them as well.

Access to Higher Education diplomas are accredited by Accessing Validating Agencies, licensed by QAA and delivered by further education colleges.

Foundation years

Some institutions offer Foundation years as preparation for certain degree courses. Foundation years generally don't result in a separate qualification as they simply qualify you to enter the degree course itself.

Foundation years aren't available for all degree courses and you will need to check with each higher education provider about availability.

Taking a Foundation year may be helpful if:

  • you don't have the necessary qualifications to study at degree level
  • you have not been in education for a long period of time
  • you are an overseas student and your language skills don’t yet meet the demands of a degree course

Foundation course

Foundation courses are similar to Foundation years, but may not be held at the same university or college as the full degree or diploma, or qualify you for entry to a particular course.

 Foundation degree

A Foundation degree is different from a foundation year or a foundation course. It  is an intermediate higher education qualification its own right,  delivered in further education colleges. Foundation degrees mix academic and work related learning and offer a route into employment or university and a way to better yourself in your job.

Disability and/ or Special Educational Needs (SEN) student support

Universities and colleges are increasingly aware of the needs of students with disabilities and students with specific learning difficulties. They can provide support in a number of ways, including the possibility of extra financial help.

The video below shows a woman who had grown up with dyslexia, tell how the support available gave her the confidence to go to university.

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