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?

An undergraduate qualification in the UK is an academic step up from A-levels (or their equivalents) and is typically gained by completing a programme of study at university. There are three broad types of course:

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

The variety of undergraduate courses and subjects on offer means it is important to fully research which option suits you best. For advice on making this huge decision, see how to choose the right degree.

What’s the difference between undergraduate and postgraduate study?

There are many excellent reasons why you might wish to think about further study after finishing your undergraduate degree. However, whether you harbour academic ambitions or are following a specific career path, the step up to a Masters requires some serious consideration.

This transition to postgraduate level is likely to involve more extensive preparation, with the programme typically culminating in a dissertation. The way the course is organised and assessed can come as a shock too, especially if you thrive on studying in larger groups. You'll find, though, that this self-directed learning can lead to you becoming quite an expert in your chosen field.

Find out more about the most popular form of postgraduate study by exploring what is a Masters degree?

Bachelor degree (BA, BSc)

This is the most widely available type of undergraduate qualification with a vast number of courses available. Studying for a Bachelor degree at a UK university will enable you to develop a thorough understanding of one or more subjects.

Your choice of subject will determine the name of the qualification. Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BSc) are the most common, but there are others such as Bachelor of Education (BEd), Bachelor of Engineering (BEng) and Bachelor of Laws (LLB).

Your course will usually last three or four years, although some subjects such as medicine will take longer. In Scotland an undergraduate degree will last four years and may be referred to by some universities as a Masters.

A number of courses, for example languages, may include a year studying abroad, while there are also fast-track degrees that can be completed in two years by working through the summer. Part-time study can take up to six years.

Most of these degrees involve attending lectures, seminars and tutorials, with assessment through exams and coursework. Tuition fees for UK students are £9,000 a year, and it will cost more for international students - but check whether you're eligible for any funding.

You apply for full-time study through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) and can select up to five alternative courses at different universities to broaden your chances of being accepted onto a programme that suits you. Use the UCAS website to find entry requirements and application deadlines.

The Graduate Labour Market Statistics: 2015 revealed that graduates had higher rates of employment than non-graduates, with a greater proportion in high-skilled roles and commanding higher median salaries.

To find out what the employment prospects are for your chosen subject, discover what can I do with my degree?

A Bachelors degree also gives you the opportunity to go on to postgraduate study.

Foundation degree (FD)

Combining academic study with workplace learning, they are equivalent to two-thirds of a full degree and are generally offered by universities and further education colleges working in partnership. Designed in conjunction with employers, foundation degrees focus on a particular career path.

Full-time study takes two years, part-time up to four years. You'll need some relevant work experience to get on a course. Foundation degrees are often taken by those with existing knowledge of a profession who wish to formalise that experience with a qualification, as well as new entrants.

The cost will vary by course and institution. For example, fees for a two-year foundation degree in computing at Teeside University are £6,000 per year, or £9,000 per year for a similar course at Buckinghamshire New University. Working and earning alongside your study is widely encouraged.

Many people go on to study for a further year to top-up their qualification to a full degree, while others put their skills to immediate use in the relevant profession. Applications are made through UCAS for full-time study or directly to the institution for part-time study. To find out more, visit 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 to study full-time or three years part-time. They differ from degrees in that they focus on vocational skills needed for specific areas of work. This is why those looking to enter industries such as engineering, computer science or health and social care find it offers a better route into their chosen careers.

These courses are typically provided by further education colleges and to gain entry you'll need one or two A-levels. They are mostly classroom taught, but assessment is by projects, assignments and practical tasks rather than exams. You'll also undertake work placements.

They differ from foundation degrees in that HNDs are awarded by the education company Pearson through its examinations arm Edexcel, or by degree-awarding bodies under licence from Pearson. In Scotland they are awarded exclusively by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

To give you an idea of course fees, a two-year full-time HND in Sport, Coaching and Physical Education at the University of Worcester is £9,000 per year. Applications for full-time study are made through UCAS.

An HND can lead directly to a career, or you can enter the second or third year of a full degree. Find out more at your HND, what next?

Higher National Certificates (HNCs) are also available. These are one level below an HND and are equivalent to the first year of a degree. They take one year to complete full-time, and can be a stepping stone to further study or can lead directly to a career.

Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE)

A DipHE is the academic counterpart to the HND, as it is also equivalent to two years of a full degree. It is usually awarded following the successful completion of two years of a full-time first degree at a higher education institution.

While many students choose to stay on for the full degree, as long as the DipHE is available for your chosen subject, you should be able to leave after two years with this recognised stand-alone qualification.

When searching for courses, it is worth noting that some DipHEs may be a part of the full degree, but with fewer modules to take. The award can take the form of a three-year full-time programme, while some courses are only one year.

The diploma is typically offered in the following subjects:

  • accounting;
  • construction;
  • engineering;
  • nursing;
  • science;
  • social care;
  • technology;
  • textile design.

You can also take a Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE). This is a level below the DipHE. It is equivalent to the first year of a full degree and therefore is the academic counterpart to the HNC. It is a good option if you don't have the academic qualifications to enter your chosen subject on a three-year Bachelors course.

National Vocational Qualification (NVQ)

An NVQ at Levels 4-6 is equivalent to a degree. However, these qualifications focus more on practical skills than academic study, taking place within the context of your current full or part-time work.

As NVQs are work-based, instead of taking exams you are assessed by demonstrating your ability to do a job over a period of time. You will be observed by an assessor and submit a portfolio, and your performance in each unit will be measured against national occupational standards.

The cost of an NVQ varies. For instance, a two-year part-time NVQ Level 4 Diploma in Business and Administration at Sheffield City College would typically cost £1,500, while an NVQ Level 4 Diploma in Advice and Guidance obtained through the City of Westminster College would cost £2,292.

There are no time limits for taking an NVQ, so you can work towards the qualification at your own pace (although some providers will set a cut-off date with any extension incurring additional fees). In Scotland an NVQ is known as a Scottish Vocational Qualification (SVQ).

Where can I get more advice?

  • Open days - find out more about the courses on offer, while getting a feel for whether the university is right for you. Get your questions answered by academics, current students and alumni.
  • Tutors - speak to the school teachers who know you best, as well as contacting prospective tutors with any queries you have about undergraduate study and courses of interest.
  • Students - take advantage of any online chat sessions run by universities to engage with current students. Ask what the course is like, whether they have any regrets, would they make a different decision based on their experience, and what the best and worst things are about that university and course.
  • Careers service - advisers at the National Careers Service are available to offer guidance and provide careers advice, while you can also speak to your college careers adviser about helping you work through your options and completing your university applications.
  • UCAS - visit the home of undergraduate applications for more details on the process and to find out about their higher education exhibitions.