Upon completion of their A-levels, many students decide to go to university to study an honours degree - but with a range of options available it's important to choose the right qualification for your career aspirations

Qualifications explained

  • A Bachelors degree in the arts or sciences is most common type of undergraduate qualification studied at university.
  • Other work-based qualifications are available from higher and further education (FE) colleges. These include foundation degrees, HNDs and NVQs.
  • Some qualifications offer the possibility of 'topping up' to a full Bachelors degree, through time spent at university.
  • The Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) shows the various qualification levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

What is an undergraduate degree?

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. There are generally three kinds of undergraduate course:

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

As a variety of options are available it's important to do your research and see which route suits you best.

To find out more, see how to choose the right degree.

What’s the difference between undergraduate and postgraduate study?

They both fall under the umbrella term of 'higher education', but they relate to different levels of qualification. An undergraduate is someone enrolled in higher education who hasn't yet received their first degree. A postgraduate is any student engaged in higher education beyond their first degree.

While the majority of undergraduate degrees include lectures and group projects, postgraduate courses tend to involve more research-based, independent study, culminating in a final dissertation. This self-dictated learning may initially be a shock, but it allows you to specialise in a field you're passionate about.

Find out more about postgraduate study and what's involved with studying towards a Masters degree.

Bachelors degree

The Level 6 honours degree is the most common and widely studied undergraduate qualification, with thousands of courses available across the UK. Studying for a Bachelors degree at 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 an honours degree, with many institutions including the option to spend a year in industry or study abroad. Some courses, such as medicine and architecture, are exceptions and run for much longer. You can also choose to study a degree on a part-time basis, which is well suited to those with a need to work while studying.

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

How a Bachelors is assessed will depend on the nature of the degree programme. As well as sitting exams, BA students can expect to submit essays and give presentations, while BSc students may undergo practical lab-based tests.

The classification of a Bachelors degree is usually based on a weighted average - for example, 70% or above is typically graded as a first-class honours degree (known as a 1st), while a second-class honours degree in the upper division (2:1) is typically given for marks in the 60-69% range.

Tuition fees for UK and Ireland students planning on studying in England in 2021/22 can be up to £9,250 per year. International students, including those from the European Union (EU), 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 can broaden your horizons in the job market. The Department for Education's (DfE) Graduate Labour Market statistics 2020 report shows that graduates have significantly higher rates of employment and earn on average nearly £9,500 more per year than non-graduates.

A Bachelors also allows you to enrol in postgraduate study - where you can expect to earn on average £7,000 more than those with a first degree.

To discover the employment prospects for your chosen subject, explore 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, at Level 5 of the RQF. Completing a foundation degree full time will usually take two years, with part-time courses lasting around four years.

Candidates looking to formalise their workplace knowledge with a qualification, or those looking to enter a specific profession may wish to consider a foundation degree. There are no set entry requirements, as company training and relevant work experience are typically more useful than formal qualifications.

Costs vary between courses and institutions. For example, the Foundation Degree in Supporting Early Years Practice at Leeds Trinity University costs £5,000 per year for 2021/22. Alternatively, the Foundation Degree (FdSc) in Computing at Derby College is set at £6,500, with St Mary's University Twickenham London charging £8,840 per year for their Foundation Degree (FdSc) in Physical Education and Sports Coaching.

Read more about studying for a foundation degree.

Higher National Diploma (HND)

Another Level 5 qualification, 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 years 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 a Bachelors degree.

These courses are typically provided by higher education institutions and FE colleges - 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 it 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, a two-year full-time HND in Digital Film and Television from Glasgow Clyde college is set at £1,285 per year for those eligible to claim SAAS (Student Awards Agency Scotland) support in 2021/22. Other UK residents will be charged the higher rate of £3,000 per year. On the other hand, a one-year full-time Food Business Management HND top-up course from the University of West London costs £9,250 for the year.

Discover more about HND courses.

Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE)

A DipHE at Level 5 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.

It's recognised as a standalone qualification and teaching is delivered to the standard of a full undergraduate degree, which makes the DipHE an attractive option to students who can't commit to a three-year degree.

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 Level 4 Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE), which is one level below the DipHE and takes one year of full-time study to complete. It's the academic equivalent to the Higher National Certificate (HNC) and a viable option for those considering transferring onto a Bachelors course they don't have the qualifications for.

For both these qualifications, the fees are usually the same as studying for a Bachelors degree.

National Vocational Qualification (NVQ)

NVQs are awarded at seven different levels, equivalent to other academic qualifications.

For instance:

  • a Level 7 NVQ is equivalent to a Masters degree
  • a Level 6 NVQ is the same as a Bachelors degree
  • 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 onto an NVQ course.

Instead of taking exams, you're 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 time limit on completing NVQ modules.

NVQ fees vary between courses and institutions. For instance, a Level 4 NVQ Diploma in Advice and Guidance from Barnsley College costs £1,095, while a Level 5 NVQ Diploma in Management and Leadership from the Open University will set you back £2,600.

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

Where can I get more advice?

  • Open days - find out more about undergraduate courses while getting a feel for the university. It's an 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 what life is like as a student.
  • Tutors - your current tutors can offer advice, put you in touch with careers advisers and help you 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.

Find out more

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