HE in more detail

Higher Education qualifications

Higher Education qualifications

HE qualifications cover a wide range of subjects, including combinations of subjects, and work areas. It is not always possible to neatly divide courses into ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’. However, it is possible to say that some courses  are seen as more ‘work related’ than others, in terms of learning, teaching, content and assessment (for example Foundation Degrees and BTEC Higher National Diplomas, or short courses in the workplace). Before selecting a course it is always important for learners to research carefully and thoroughly.

Universities and colleges offer many different types of Higher Education qualifications, and it’s important that learners are aware of all the options available to them, so that they can choose a qualification that best suits their needs, aptitudes and career aspirations. Foundation Degrees, Higher and Degree Apprenticeships, HNCs and HNDs, Honours Degrees andHonours Degrees with a placement year are all examples of HE qualifications.

Qualification Levels

Within Higher Education there are different ‘levels’ of courses. In England there is a Higher Education qualifications framework which means it is possible to compare different HE qualifications. On this framework qualifications are ‘graded’ in terms of difficulty, at levels 4, 5 and 6. This framework also means that having finished a course at one level, students may progress to the next level.

Have a look at our qualification page for a more detailed description.  

Higher Education qualification explained


Honours Degree Courses

An Honours Degree is a course of study leading to a qualification such as a Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BSc), or Bachelor of Law (LLB). This typically takes three or four years to complete full-time (normally four years if students are taking a sandwich course, which includes a year in industry or abroad).

Students can study for a full or part-time Honours Degree at an HEI, or more flexibly in their own time with the Open University, building up credits through a series of shorter courses.

Foundation Degrees

Foundation Degrees are designed and delivered in partnership with employers and Higher Education providers (universities and colleges). They are often taught in a college but awarded by a university.

  • They combine study with workplace learning, so learners can use their place of work to provide evidence of their learning and for project work.  
  • A full-time Foundation Degree course will usually take two years to complete; a part-time Foundation degree course will normally take longer.
  • After completing a Foundation Degree many learners go on to study for a full Honours Degree (which usually takes one further year, and study might take place at the awarding university).
  • Foundation Degrees can be a good option for a learner who is  already working and wants to further their career, or for a student who wants to study a subject related to a job.

Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) and Higher National Certificates (HNCs)

HNDs (Level 5) and HNCs (Level 4) are job-related qualifications available in a wide range of vocational areas. They are offered by colleges and some universities.

  • HNCs take one year full-time or two years part-time and are one level below HNDs. They can allow entry to a 2nd year of a degree, although this should be checked before application.  
  • Full-time HNDs take two years to complete and can be used as a qualification in their own right, or for entry to the second or third year of a degree course, but this can vary between universities so learners will need to check. As with degree courses, they can also be taken on a sandwich basis and include a work placement.

Here are some of the vocational areas that offer HNDs:

  • Arts, Media and Publishing
  • Business, Administration and Law
  • Construction, Planning and the Built Environment
  • Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies
  • Information and Communication Technology
  • Leisure, Travel and Tourism

Foundation Year (different from foundation degrees)

A foundation year is an extra year of study at the start of a university course. It allows students who don't meet the entry requirements for the normal course to fill in the gaps and go on to study a full degree.

There are a variety of situations in which learners might be able to study a foundation year:

  • They might have taken qualifications that don't match up to the degree they want to study.
  • They might not quite have made the grades they need to go straight on to the standard degree course.
  • Offers are sometimes lower for courses with foundation years.
  • Not all courses have foundation years. Often arts degree courses expect students to have completed a foundation year course.

Higher Education Certificates and Diplomas

Certificates of Higher Education are academic, rather than vocational qualifications.

  • They are roughly equivalent to the first year of a degree and usually take a year of full-time study to complete.
  • HE Diplomas are available in a range of subjects and usually take two years to complete full-time and potentially can be topped up to a full degree with further study. 

Short courses

Many short courses (or even in-house training) provided for employers by Higher Education institutions may be accredited at Higher Education level (Level 4 upwards on the national framework). This is at the same level as other Higher Education courses. These may include short courses from degree courses but also professional qualifications.

Professional qualifications

Professional qualifications are qualifications awarded directly by professional bodies.  Professional qualifications are usually completed in the workplace on a part-time or distance learning basis and relevant previous study and/or work experience can lead to exemption from parts or complete levels of the qualification. 

Professional qualifications can be offered from Level 1 up to Level 8 in the QCF framework. As the qualification is likely to be directly relevant to their current job role, employers are often prepared to part or full fund the qualification, or indeed require them to do so as part of their CPD.

A number of Higher Education courses are recognised by professional bodies, and can provide either partial or in some cases complete exemptions for specific professions. When making decisions on which course(s) to apply for learners need to make contact with the relevant professional body to find out which courses they recognise and accredit.