The UK boasts a diverse and wide-ranging further education sector that provides opportunities for school leavers, young adults and mature students

FE sector facts

  • Further education includes study after secondary school.
  • College is for people of all ages, with courses free for students aged 16 to 18.
  • 1.6 million students go to college in England each year to develop their career, progress to university, engage in further education or increase their employability.

What is further education?

On GOV.UK it states that further education (FE) includes any study after secondary education that doesn't form part of an undergraduate or graduate degree.

These post-secondary school qualifications are delivered by FE, sixth form and specialist colleges that aim to provide top quality academic, technical and professional education and training for both young people and adults.

The Education and Training Foundation (ETF), the professional body for FE training and standards in England, has produced a Guide to the FE System in England.

How is the FE system structured?

According to the AoC, there are 270 colleges in the UK (June 2023):

  • 225 colleges in England
  • 26 in Scotland
  • 13 in Wales
  • 6 in Northern Ireland.

UK colleges are represented by the following organisations specific to each home nation:

  • Association of Colleges (AoC) - The membership organisation representing FE, sixth form, tertiary and specialist colleges in England.
  • Colleges Scotland - The collective voice of the college sector in Scotland.
  • Colleges Wales - An education charity that promotes the public benefit of further education in Wales.
  • Northern Ireland (NI) Direct - Oversees the two university colleges, six FE colleges and an agri-food and land-based college in NI.

Most colleges are referred to as general FE colleges, but there are a number of different types of institution.

For instance, of the 225 colleges in England:

  • 158 are general FE colleges
  • 44 sixth form colleges
  • 11 land-based colleges
  • 10 institutes of adult learning (formerly specialist designated colleges)
  • two art, design and performing arts colleges.

Who are college courses aimed at?

Anyone aged 16 and over can go to college, although the AoC reported that the majority of college income for 2020/21 (£3.63billion), accounting for 55% of total spending, was focused on 16-18 education.

It's unsurprising that sixth form and general FE colleges providing qualifications at A-level standard benefit most from the funding, especially as education is still free for students in this age group.

Colleges are inclusive places to learn, with over a fifth (21%) of students studying in England in 2022/23 having indicated some form of learning difficulty and/or disability.

What FE courses can you study?

Widely available FE courses include:

See college courses for an overview of the main FE qualifications studied at college.

However, while these FE courses are offered by colleges rather than universities, some colleges also run undergraduate programmes.

Read our guide to undergraduate qualifications.

It was also revealed that colleges train around 1,000 apprentices, so you may wish to explore apprenticeships in more detail. You can learn more about vocational college courses at AoC - About colleges.

Can I still go on to university?

Some FE qualifications can be topped up to a full degree, so if you're thinking of going to university but still aren't sure, the course may offer credit should you choose to carry on with study after the college course.

What are the modes of study at college?

Similar to university, you can choose between full and part-time study for the majority of courses. While some will require you to spend a significant amount of time in the classroom, colleges often use a blended learning approach, with online distance learning complementing the traditional face-to-face teaching.

Online college courses, for qualifications such as A-levels and BTECs, are also very popular. This is because you'll get the opportunity to study and achieve a qualification without the need to visit the college in person. The course will typically involve interacting with tutors and other learners online through lectures, training sessions, webinars and chat forums.

Popular FE providers include the Open Study College and Online Learning College, while The Open University offers qualification options at undergraduate level and above. You can also explore free courses as signposted by the National Careers Service (NCS).

This flexible approach to learning allows students to study at a time and place that fits in with their lifestyle, perfect if there isn't a local college accessible from your area. Read more about the benefits of online learning.

Am I eligible for student finance?

As mentioned, FE college courses are free for 16 to 18-year-olds, but for adult learners (anyone 19 and over), tuition fees are likely to be involved. Even younger students can still claim education-related costs through the government's 16 to 19 Bursary Fund.

If you're studying in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, you may be able to claim for Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

When it comes to online learning with private course providers, you'll certainly need to pay course fees. For instance, if you're taking A-levels, you'll need to consider exam and invigilation fees as well as tuition costs, while for some courses, there's additional fees for the practical aspects of the programme.

There are a range of grants and loans offered at a local level for adult education. For example, see the booklet on Fees, finance and funding for adult learners from The Manchester College.

For undergraduate courses at college, you can consider applying for government support in the form of tuition fee and maintenance loans. Read more about student loans and finance at undergraduate level.

Can international students go to college in the UK?

International students can apply to go to college in the UK, but you'll need to have sorted out your visa first before entering the country.

As Britain has now left the European Union (EU), students from European countries will require 'settled' status under the EU Settlement Scheme to live and study here. However, in many cases, college fees are still generally quite reasonable.

The AoC has revealed that the average tuition fees for international students studying a further education qualification is £8,200 per year, with Level 3 courses proving the most popular.

As colleges are renowned for providing a pipeline for those progressing to university, a high proportion of international students choose to move on to HE courses.

They also found that as far as the international marketplace is concerned, the main drawing power in coming to the UK for FE-level study is to achieve A-levels, take English language courses and undertake teacher training.

Read more about studying in the UK at degree level.

You can also take a look at the scholarships and funding available from the British Council - and get information on how to apply to study in the UK.

Find out more

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