Finished your A-levels, but want to know more about undergraduate qualifications before deciding whether to continue with study? Discover where a degree might lead you…

What is an undergraduate qualification?

In the UK, an undergraduate degree is an academic step up from A-levels (or their equivalent), typically completed at a university or other higher education institution. Generally speaking, there are three kinds of undergraduate course:

  • those that lead to a degree
  • intermediate qualifications in the form of certificates or diplomas
  • those that combine workplace learning and academic study.

As there are a wide variety of options available to prospective undergraduates, it's important to do your research and see which avenue suits you best. For help and guidance on making this big decision, see how to choose the right degree.

What’s the difference between undergraduate and postgraduate study?

Undergraduate and postgraduate study both fall under the umbrella term of 'higher education', pertaining to different levels of qualification. An undergraduate is a candidate enrolled in higher education who has not yet received their first degree. A postgraduate is any student engaged in higher education beyond their first degree.

While the majority of undergraduate courses include lectures in large theatres and group projects in their structure, postgraduate courses tend to involve more research-based, independent study, culminating in a final dissertation. This self-dictated learning may be a shock at first, but will allow you to specialise in a field you're really passionate about.

Find out more about postgraduate study at what is a Masters degree?

Bachelors degree

A Bachelors degree is the most common and widely available type of undergraduate qualification, with thousands of courses available across the UK. Studying for a Bachelors at a UK university will give you an in-depth understanding of one or more subjects.

It typically takes three to four years of full-time study to complete a Bachelors degree, with many institutions offering a year in industry or study abroad programme. Some courses, such as medicine and architecture, are exceptions to this rule and run for much longer.

The two most common denominations of Bachelors degree are Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BSc). Other degree schools include Bachelor of Education (BEd), Bachelor of Engineering (BEng) and Bachelor of Laws (LLB).

How a Bachelors is assessed will depend on its denomination. As well as sitting exams, BA students can expect to submit essay assignments and give presentations, while BSc students may undergo practical lab-based tests.

Tuition fees for UK students currently stand at £9,000 per year at the majority of institutions. International students should expect to pay much more.

You can apply for up to five full-time Bachelors courses through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). Visit the UCAS website for application deadlines and entry requirements.

Obtaining a Bachelors degree broadens your horizons in the job market. The Department for Education's Graduate Labour Market statistics 2016 report shows that graduates have significantly higher rates of employment and earn on average nearly £10,000 more per year than their non-graduate competitors.

A Bachelors also allows you to enrol in postgraduate study. To find out what the employment prospects are for your chosen degree subject, see what can I do with my degree?

Foundation degree

A foundation degree offers a combination of workplace learning and academic study. It carries the same weight as two-thirds of a Bachelors degree - equivalent to an HND or DipHE qualification (see below). Completing a foundation degree full time will usually take two years, with part-time courses lasting around four.

Candidates looking to formalise their workplace knowledge with a qualification, or those wishing to enter a specific profession may opt for a foundation degree. There are no set entry requirements, as company training and relevant work experience may be more useful to your success in the degree than formal qualifications.

Costs will vary between courses and institutions. For example, Burnley College's Foundation Degree in Public Services is set at £9,000 per year (since September 2016), whereas Bucks New University charge £7,800 for their Foundation Degree in Health and Social Care (for the 2017/18 academic year).

Discover the options with your foundation degree.

Higher National Diploma (HND)

An HND is equivalent to the second year of a Bachelors degree. It takes two years of full-time study to complete, or three to four part time, and is designed to equip you with skills relevant to your chosen career. Those looking to enter practical industries such as health and social care, engineering or agriculture may benefit more from an HND than they would a Bachelors degree.

These courses are typically provided by higher education institutions and to gain entry you'll need a minimum of one or two A-levels. They are mostly classroom taught, but assessment is by projects, presentations and practical tasks rather than traditional exams. Depending on your course subject, you also might be expected to complete work placements.

An HND can lead directly to a career, or can be extended via a top-up course into a full Bachelors degree. Applications for full-time HNDs and top-ups are made through UCAS.

To give you an idea of course fees, an HND in Commercial and Creative Photography from the University of Northampton (2017/18 entry) will cost £9,250 per year. A Creative Media Production HND top-up course from Walsall College (2017/18 entry) costs £4,800.

Find out more at your HND, what next?

Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE)

A DipHE is the academic equivalent to the HND and is awarded after two years of full-time study at a university or other higher education institution. A DipHE is recognised as a stand-alone qualification and teaching is given to the standard of a full undergraduate degree, which makes the DipHE an attractive option to students who cannot commit to a full Bachelors. As long as the DipHE is available for your chosen subject, you may be able to leave a Bachelors course early and still obtain a DipHE.

This diploma is offered in subjects such as:

  • animal science
  • counselling
  • healthcare
  • nursing
  • paramedic science
  • textile design.

You can also take the Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE), which is a level below the DipHE and takes one year of full-time study to complete. It's the academic equivalent to the HNC and a viable option for those looking to transfer onto a Bachelors course that they don't have the qualifications for.

National Vocational Qualification (NVQ)

NVQs are awarded at six different levels, equivalent to other academic qualifications. A level 6 NVQ is equivalent to a Bachelors degree, while levels 4 and 5 equate to the first and second years of a Bachelors degree respectively. NVQs are focused on practical skills in the context of your full- or part-time work. You must be employed prior to enrolling on an NVQ.

Instead of taking exams, you are assessed by demonstrating your ability to do your job over a period of time, by submitting a portfolio and undergoing observations by an assessor. Candidates are observed on each unit when they're ready, meaning there's no stringent time limit on completing NVQ modules.

NVQ fees vary between courses and institutions. For instance, a level 4 NVQ Diploma in Business and Administration from the Open University costs £2,200, while a level 5 NVQ in Management from Kirklees College will only set you back £1,500.

The Scottish equivalent to an NVQ is a Scottish Vocational Qualification (SVQ).

Where can I get more advice?

  • Open days - find out more about a course while getting a feel for the university. Use this opportunity to have your questions answered by lecturers, students and alumni.
  • Students - utilise online chat rooms and connections through family and friends to gain an insight into the student experience. Ask current and former students about the things they'd do differently, the quality of their course, and so on.
  • Tutors - your current tutors can offer you advice, put you in touch with careers advisers and help with your higher education application.
  • UCAS - visit the hub of undergraduate applications for more details on the process of getting into university.
  • Job profiles - search job profiles to see what qualifications you'll need for your chosen career.