Guide to qualifications

Image of students sitting next to each other with laptops, tablets and clipboards on their laps

If you’re about to finish school or college, then choosing your next move is a big decision. Making a decision about what subject you want to study might be easy, because generally people decide based on what they are interested in – but deciding on the right qualification path can be tricky. For those who have already been in employment, or who have never studied in the UK, it can feel even more daunting, since things may have changed since they were last in education, or may follow a different route in their home country.

What is an undergraduate qualification?

Undergraduate qualifications are the next stage in academic study after college, or A-level, and are usually completed through a university or an accredited higher education institution. Many people consider higher education to mean a degree (and of course, that is one type of undergraduate qualification), but there are alternatives. 

If studying a three year degree programme isn’t for you, undergraduate certificates and diplomas are an option, as are programmes that combine academic study with on-the-job training.

How are undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications different?

Undergraduate and postgraduate study takes place in universities or other accredited higher education institutions, generally when students are over the age of 18. 

Undergraduate study applies to qualifications up to a first degree. Academic undergraduate courses, especially those that can be counted towards a degree, are usually taught in lectures and seminars, with group projects and independent study included. Work-based courses usually include elements of theory and practical assessment, as well as examinations and the submission of a portfolio. 

Postgraduate qualifications are studied after a student has received their degree. There are a range of qualifications available at postgraduate level, including postgraduate certificates and diplomas, Masters degrees, MBAs, PhD. and professional doctorates. Postgraduate study tends to emphasise research and independent work rather than lectures and seminars. There is often a dissertation, or thesis required, as well as a viva voce – a spoken examination where students defend their work. 

Bachelor's degree

A Bachelor’s degree, also known as an undergraduate (or undergrad) degree is the most commonly studied qualification. The majority of degrees that are awarded are Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BSc), although there are industry specific degrees, such as Bachelor of Education (BEd), Bachelor of Engineering (BEng) and Bachelor of Laws (LLB).

The entry requirements for previous qualifications differ between subjects, types of degrees and institutions. If you have a specific degree in mind, check with the institution, or on the UCAS website (if you are a UK student). 

Many universities will offer Bachelor’s degrees in single, or multiple subjects – usually subjects that complement the other are offered as taught programmes, such as business studies and a language, but institutions may allow a mix of modules to be studied and result in a different named degree. 

Usually Bachelors degrees take three to four years full time, or longer if studied part time or with a year in industry, or abroad. Some exceptions apply, such as medical degrees and architecture. 

Generally Bachelor’s degrees are awarded based on weighted averages. If you score 70% or above, you’ll be awarded a First-Class Honours degree, (also known as a first) 60% to 69% will be awarded an Upper Second-Class Honours degree, (known as a 2:1) 50% to 59% is awarded a Lower Second-Class Honours degree (a 2:2) and below that, between 40% to 49% receive a Third-Class Honours degree. 

How much does a Bachelor’s degree cost? 

Up to £9,250 per year – although fees for international students may be higher and are set by each university individually.. 

How do I apply for a Bachelor’s degree? 

Through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) website (if you are a UK student). 

What can I do after finishing a Bachelor’s degree? 

Progress to postgraduate study programmes or enter employment. 

Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE)

CertHE is equal to one year of study at degree level, and is often awarded once a student has completed the first year of a full-time degree. Since the qualification is a degree level course, applicants may need to meet entrance criteria, but some universities that offer the CertHE as a standalone course don’t require any previous study to gain a place on the course. 

Assessments are usually essays, coursework or exams, or a combination of these methods – just as would be studied for the first year of a degree.

How much does a CertHE cost? 

Up to £9,250 per year – the same as a Bachelor’s degree.

How do I apply for an CertHE? 

Directly to the college or university. 

What can I do after finishing a CertHE? 

Move on to the Diploma of Higher Education, or use the credit towards a Bachelor’s degree programme.

Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE)

The DipHE is a two year course of degree level study, and is the next step up from the CertHE. It is sometimes awarded to students who leave their Bachelors degree programme before completing the final year, and is usually worth 240 credits, which is what students would have completed in the first two years of their Bachelors degree. Where the DipHE is offered as a standalone course, it is often a vocational course – such as for nursing, social work or engineering. 

It is an academic course, and so assessments are usually essays, coursework or exams, or a combination of these methods.

How much does a DipHE cost?

Up to £9000 per year. 

How do I apply for a DipHE?

You’ll apply directly to the institution. 

What can I do after finishing a DipHE?

Continue to complete the remaining credits for a full Bachelors degree.

Foundation degree

A foundation degree is usually a two year programme that blends aspects of both academic and vocational qualifications. The course will be assessed with written work, group assignments and presentations, as well as practical elements related to the subject. Foundation degrees are equivalent to two thirds of a Bachelor’s degree, and is often run by colleges or universities in partnership with employers. 

Some universities offer foundation degrees that are just a year, and studying a foundation degree can be a way to be accepted onto a Bachelor’s degree programme if you don’t have qualifications that meet the requirements. An example of this type of course is the International Foundation Programme (Business) at University of the West of Scotland, London Campus. Successful completion of this foundation degree would allow entry to the BA Hons International Business, and students would be able to complete their degree studies over 2 years and 8 months.

Because of the vocational nature of foundation degrees, institutions set their own entrance criteria. However, even if GCSEs are the only requirement, note that the first year of study is at level four, and the second year is at level five, so you should be prepared for the demands of study at this level. 

How much does a foundation degree cost? 

The cost of a foundation degree differs between the type of course and the institution that is offering the course. On average though, fees are around £2600 per year. 

How do I apply for a foundation degree? 

It depends on the course and the institution. Some require application through UCAS, while others prefer that you apply directly to the institution.

What can I do after finishing a foundation degree? 

You may be able to use your foundation degree as credit towards completing a full honours degree, which means you would receive your Bachelor’s degree after a final year of studying. 

Higher National Certificate (HNC)
and Higher National Diploma (HND)

The HNC is a one year course and is a practical qualification that prepares students for their chosen career. The course will be presented in the classroom for tuition in theory, with practical sessions taken where it is appropriate for the subject – either in a specially designed training suite, or in an appropriate workplace. Written assignments, and a portfolio is often required, and there is usually an emphasis on key skills of English and maths in each programme. 

To be accepted onto an HND, you’ll usually need at least one A-level, or an equivalent level of qualification to be accepted onto a HNC course. Check with the institution to find out course-specific entry requirements.  

When you have finished all your assessments, you’ll be graded as having achieved either a Pass (P), Merit (M) or Distinction (D). If you don’t pass, you’ll receive an unclassified grade (U).

How much does a HNC cost? 

The HNC costs between £4000 and £8000. 

How do I apply for an HNC? 

Usually you’ll apply directly to the college or university. 

What can I do after finishing an HNC? 

You can use your HNC as credit towards completing a Bachelor’s degree, or continue to complete an HND. 

HND qualifications are the next step up from the HNC. They’re practical qualifications, but as with the HNC, there will be classroom learning, sometimes group work as well as assignments and a portfolio to complete. The practical nature of the HNC/HND route means it is ideal for people that know which field, or career they want.

A HND usually takes two years to complete if studied full time. Usually you’ll need a minimum of one A-level or an equivalent level qualification. Check with the institution or UCAS for specific entry requirements.

The HND is graded in the same way as the HNC. You’ll receive either a Pass (P), Merit (M) or Distinction (D), or if you don’t pass, an unclassified grade (U).

How much does an HND cost? 

HNDs cost between £4000 and £8000 for each year.

How do I apply for an HND? 

Typically to the college or university directly. 

What can I do after finishing an HND? 

You can use your HND as up to 240 credits towards a Bachelor’s degree, meaning that you can top up to a degree in a year after you’ve finished studying. 

National Vocational Qualification (NVQ)

A National Vocational Qualification is a work-based learning qualification. Students are observed and assessed while they work, and will complete a portfolio for assessment. 

The NVQ qualifications can be studied at six different levels, which roughly equate to: 

  • NVQ level 1 is entry level and is typically studied when someone has no prior qualifications. 
  • NVQ level 2 is equivalent to GCSE level study. This level of NVQ is often offered in schools and colleges as an alternative to GCSE programmes.
  • NVQ level 3 is the same level as A-level qualifications, and can be studied in the workplace rather than going to college.
  • NVQ level 4 is equivalent to a Higher National Certificate, which is the same level as the first year of a degree.
  • NVQ level 5 is the highest NVQ, and is comparable to an HND, or having studied for two years of a degree. 


How much does an NVQ cost? 

Fees vary depending on the subject and the level to be studied. 

How do I apply for an NVQ? 

Typically you’ll apply to the college or university directly. 

What can I do after finishing an NVQ? 

Depending on the level that you have completed, you may progress to the next NVQ level, or use your NVQ studies as credit towards completing a Bachelor’s degree. 

What if I don’t have the right entry qualifications?

If you are just finishing school or college, then you may be able to study an access course that will allow you to progress to the course you want to study. Before proceeding, you should check that the access course will definitely be accepted by the institution you want to study at. 

Some institutions may consider offering a place to applicants without the right qualifications if they have gained relevant industry experience, or those who hold overseas qualifications. If this could apply to you, contact the institution. 

How can I pay for my qualification?

It has probably become clear that studying in higher education isn’t cheap. Many students don’t have the ability to pay their fees up front, but if you are a UK or EU student you may be eligible for an educational loan. To find out if you are eligible for a tuition fee loan, or a loan for living costs, see this page

Depending on the type of qualification you decide to study, there may be other types of financial support available, particularly if you are working at the same time as you are studying, so check with the institution. If your employer is supporting you, they may agree to pay some of the fees.

What if I choose the wrong qualification?

Every year thousands of students change their minds! Universities have support staff available to help, so if you find you’re not happy with your choice of course, they will be able to help you find alternatives at the institution. If the location isn’t right, they will help you find the right path and help you get to where you really want to be. 

Final thoughts

When you’re applying to study at any level, it is a big decision. You’ll have to dedicate a lot of time to your studies, and it is almost always going to cost a significant amount of money in fees – so your decision shouldn’t be taken lightly. However, investment made in education is rarely wasted and once you have achieved your qualifications, you’ll be in a strong position to progress to further study, or to start your search for employment. Whichever course you decide on – we wish you the best of luck.

Browse our range of undergraduate, postgraduate and Foundation courses at UWS London here.



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