Pathways to higher education

There are many routes to achieving a degree. In this step, we look at some of the different progression routes to higher education, and will concentrate on UK qualifications.

Even if you do not go to university at age 18, there will be opportunities to do so at a later stage.

Start by watching the video then find out more about the different routes to higher education below.

The qualifications landscape for university admissions has been changing. In the UK, not only are qualifications themselves undergoing reform, but there has been a significant shift in the types of qualifications with which many young people are applying to university or college.

Entering higher education

As highlighted in the video, UK students can get into higher education with a range and combination of qualifications. Depending on the university, college, and course, these include:

  • A levels
  • BTECs (or a combination such as A levels and BTEC)
  • Scottish Highers/Advanced Highers
  • Advanced and Higher Apprenticeships
  • National or Scottish Vocational Qualifications (NVQs and SVQs)
  • Scottish, Welsh, or International Baccalaureates
  • Cambridge Technicals or Cambridge Pre-Us
  • other specialist or professional qualifications

International students will need similar or equivalent level qualifications and to have a good level of written and spoken English – this could be demonstrated with IELTS, TOEFL, PTE, or alternative qualifications.

There’s also Access courses which are for students aged 19 and over without the necessary qualifications for entry to higher education. They prepare people for university-level study so they can go on to do a degree course.

If you do not have any of these qualifications but can show you have relevant experience, skills and aptitudes, you may also be considered through a process known as Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL).

Vocational qualifications

Vocational or Applied General qualifications are widely accepted for entry to HE. Around 95% of universities currently accept BTEC for entry, and for over 70% of degree subjects.

If you’re thinking about your post-16 choices, vocational qualifications can be a good option for students who know the broad career area they would like to work in, who prefer an applied learning style with more assessment than examinations, but are happy to complete the relevant academic study necessary if they want to go on to achieve a degree. Vocational qualifications, such as BTECs, are often studied in combination with other/academic qualifications, such as A levels.

Vocational qualifications are usually used for progression to related subjects at degree level, but many are transferable to other subject areas although this can depend on how specific and practical the course content is, and of course the grades achieved. This means you need to check degree course entry requirements with the university or college you’re considering applying to. Universities increasingly recognise the broader transferable skills these qualifications develop and the commitment required to achieve them.


Apprenticeships are employer/work based programmes and linked to learning within a university, college or training provider. You usually apply directly to the employer offering the apprenticeship. Apprentice-employees are released for study at their linked training provider, college or HE institution, usually in blocks, to complete the study required. Higher apprenticeships can enable you to go on to study for a foundation or full degree.

Options for achieving a degree

This may be through a full-time three or four year course, a route which many people choose, and some courses are longer. However, you can also study part-time, inside or outside employment and through different routes. The following are examples:

Foundation or qualifying year. Some degrees, usually four-years in duration, offer a foundation or qualifying year as the first year, sometimes called ‘year zero’. These are designed to develop skills and the subject-specific knowledge required to go on to complete a degree course in subject areas such as art, design, engineering and science.

Diploma in Foundation Studies (Art and Design) a one-year qualification – often shortened to ‘Art Foundation’ – is widely recognised as a primary route to gain entry to the most prestigious art and design degree courses. The learning is tailored for the students’ specific area of art and design subject interest, so they can progress to study that area at degree level.

Degree or Professional apprenticeships are new types of higher level apprenticeship which can lead to a full undergraduate degree as part of the apprenticeship. It is important to check the full details of the job and apprenticeship with the employer and training provider. They are a good fit for students who want work experience rather than to study full-time at university, but would like to work towards achieving the same degree status. Students need to be highly committed - competition can be fierce and entry qualifications can be high. If you’re considering this option, you may want to keep your options open by making an application to a full-time degree at university through UCAS at the same time.

Foundation Degree can be a destination for school leavers at 18 and a qualification towards gaining degree entry. They’re usually a two year course (longer if part-time). This route is a good option for students who need a course with lower entry requirements and fewer examinations, for those who would prefer a vocational degree/to study while they work, or are not yet ready to commit to three years at university. They combine academic skills and knowledge with workplace performance and productivity. They are designed with employers so focus on a particular job role or profession and enable you to gain professional and technical skills to further your career. They are commonly used as the basis for progression to a final ‘top-up’ year, leading to a BA or BSc full degree.

HNC or HND offer other routes to a degree - the Higher National Certificate (HNC), a one year work-related course, is equivalent to the first year of a university degree programme. The Higher National Diploma (HND) is a two year work-related course which is equivalent to the first two years of a full honours degree. As with the Foundation Degree, it is possible to progress from these to complete a full honours degree at a university.

Foundation programme for international students is primarily offered as a one-year bridging course. It’s designed for individuals who have the ability to take a degree but don’t have the full entry qualifications, subject knowledge or English language proficiency to go directly on to a degree course. They are offered by the majority of UK universities.

Accelerated degree is a two-year, fast-track, degree course offered by some higher education providers in some subject areas. They are more intensive and demanding because you have to cover the same course content in a shorter period, but it may suit some students who are prepared for the workload.

Entry requirements…

Universities and colleges set their own entry requirements for higher education courses and these vary widely…depending on the subject, the specific course and the institution.

  • Entry requirements are there to ensure that you have the right skills and knowledge to successfully complete the course. They can identify you have the essential prior learning, a proven track record in a particular style of learning and assessment, your breadth of knowledge and ability and demonstrate your focus and commitment to a particular subject area.

  • They are usually a mix of qualifications, subject or exam grades they recommend you have or are working towards when you apply.

  • Most courses will also expect you to have some pre-16 qualifications such as GCSE English and maths or their equivalent (such as IGCSEs, National 5 in Scotland, Welsh Baccalaureate National or International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme).

  • Some course providers use UCAS Tariff points in their entry requirements too. This is a points total achieved by converting qualifications such as A levels into points, making it simpler for universities and colleges to compare applicants. Don’t worry if your school qualifications are not listed in the Tariff - UK universities are knowledgeable about a wide range of non-UK qualifications. UCAS also provides lots of advice and useful tools to help you work out your Tariff points.

  • Entry to some courses can include an admissions test or have requirements for health, financial or DBS check (Disclosure and Barring Service - to check any criminal record), an interview or audition – this information will be set out in the course details. UCAS provides tips and guides to help you with these…

Top tip: If you have a particular course in mind or subject area you want to study, look up the entry requirements for these courses on the UCAS course search website. Course descriptions often mention skills, interests or experience it’s good to have, so look for these details when you’re exploring your options.

Don’t worry if you can’t meet the exact requirements or if your qualification isn’t listed on the course description or tariff. If you have something similar, you’ll probably still be considered – just contact the college or university to check.

We will hear from some Admission teams next week about entry requirements and what they’re looking for in applicants as well as looking in more detail at making your course choices and applications.

In the meantime, you can find a range of resources and documents in the download section at the bottom of this page as well as links to useful information. These provide more details on some of the topics we have touched on in this step if you want to find out more.

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This video is from the free online course:

Smart Choices: Broadening Your Horizons