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What is Higher Education?

In this Step, you’re given an overview of what Higher Education (HE) is to help you understand what’s involved.

The UK education system is made up of various levels – Primary, Secondary, Further, and Higher. HE is the highest level in the education system and is, for many, the next step after school or college.

At the various levels of education, you’ll be working towards different qualifications. Below are some examples:

A table. 1st row: Level number, Level, Typical age, Possible (UK) qualification. 2nd row: 1, Primary, 5-11, 11+. 3rd row: 2, Secondary, 11-16, GCSE’s, NVQ Level 1or 2, BTEC Level 1 or 2. 4th row: 3, Further Education (FE), 16-18,  A-levels, BTEC Level 3, NVQ Level 3. 5th row: 4 and above, Higher Education (HE), 18 and above, Degrees, Higher National Diplomas (HNDs)

If you choose to continue your studies after finishing school or college, there are lots of options open to you. Dependent on the qualification and subject you wish to pursue, you can choose to do a degree or degree apprenticeship at university, or you could study for a HNC (Higher National Certificate), HND, or foundation degree at a Higher Education Institution (HEI), which include universities and FE colleges.

Who can go?

In short, anyone who has achieved Level 3 qualifications can access HE. A huge variety of people from different backgrounds and ages participate in HE and, with the range of options available, there’s something for everyone no matter what, where, and how you want to study.

How do students choose?

Some students will have a clear idea of what they’d like to do in the future, and will choose an option that helps them realise their future goals. Others will pick a subject that they’re good at or that they enjoy. Either way, it’s important to do your research and make an informed decision. There are a number of factors involved in choosing the right option for you:

  • Each HEI is different and you’ll find that HEI’s are generally either a campus or city style.

    • A campus is where everything (teaching facilities, accommodation, shops, sports facilities) is all in one place.
    • Whereas city HEIs are more spread out and are normally in the heart of the city.

    The choice of HEI really depends on your preferences and it’s definitely worth visiting any that you’re interested in.

  • Each type of qualification is different.

    • Degrees involve you studying a subject for three years (or more – dependent on the subject) with a focus on developing academic knowledge and skills.
    • Degree apprenticeships combine study with work. You’ll still study at university for three years and complete a degree, but you’ll also work alongside it. This provides you with opportunities to gain relevant work experience.
    • HNDs and HNCs are vocational qualifications that focus on preparing students for employment with more practical teaching and learning.
  • Every subject course is different

    • HE is very different to secondary and FE in terms of subject content. For example, if you study Psychology at college, other people studying Psychology at different colleges will experience a very similar course. In HE however, same subject courses can differ from institution to institution. You may be studying the same subject as someone else at a different HEI, but the content, types of assessment, teaching, and support will vary.

    It’s important to do your research and find a course that suits your interests and your learning preferences. Make sure you read what’s on offer and don’t be shy to ask questions.

What can students study?

  • Traditional subjects: These are your classic academic subjects that you’ll be familiar with from school such as English Literature, Mathematics, Geography, Chemistry.
  • Vocational courses: These are linked to a specific job or profession so combine academic learning with the development of specific skills required in a particular area, such as Teaching, Speech and Language Therapy, Nursing.
  • Unusual courses: There’s also a wide range of unusual courses that are different to those taught at school, such as Ethical hacking, Meteorology, Theatre Practice & Puppetry.
  • Combined courses (Joint Honours): There are opportunities to take combined courses where you study more than one subject, such as Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), Art and Psychology, English Literature and French, etc…

We want to mention that HE is only one pathway after finishing school. There are many options out there to choose from. Explore what’s available, as you might surprise yourself with what you find. In the context of this course, we’ll only be talking about university life and how to prepare for it. If you’re keen to look at other options, listed under ‘See Also’ are some useful links, and if you find anything interesting during your research, share it in the discussion area.

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If you’re still deciding about university – think about the place, the people, and the opportunities open to you beyond studying. Considering these factors will ensure that you have a great experience both during and beyond your studies.

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This article is from the free online course:

Live Smart: Your Essential Guide to Living at University

University of Reading