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Pathways to Getting a Degree

Learn about the different progression pathways you can undertake in order to reach Higher Education, including A-levels and apprenticeships.
There is a range of different routes to higher education. Pathways to studying a degree include A levels, Advanced Highers, Advanced and Higher Apprenticeships, HND or HNC as well as Foundation degree qualifications and the variety of Access to HE courses. Progression routes into HE (Click to expand)
The qualifications landscape for university admissions has been undergoing significant change. In the UK, not only are qualifications themselves being reformed, but there has been a shift in the types of qualifications with which many young people are successfully applying to university or college.
This article looks at some of the different progression routes to higher education and achieving a degree. It concentrates on UK qualifications.
UK, International and EU advisers can find out about how their students’ qualifications compare to UK equivalents using the new digital UCAS Qualification Information Profiles.

Entry to higher education

Depending on the course and HE provider, UK students can get into higher education with a range and combination of qualifications which include:
  • A levels – the most common
  • BTECs (or a combination such as A levels and BTEC) and other Applied General qualifications such as Cambridge Technicals.
  • Scottish Highers/Advanced Highers
  • Advanced and Higher/Modern Apprenticeships
  • National or Scottish Vocational Qualifications (NVQs and SVQs)
  • Scottish, Welsh, or International Baccalaureates
  • other specialist or professional qualifications
There’s also Access to HE Diplomas which are for students aged 19 and over without the necessary level 3 qualifications. They prepare people for university-level study so they can go on to do a degree course.
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.
If students do not have any of these qualifications but can show they have relevant experience, skills and aptitudes, they may also be considered through a process known as Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL).

Entering HE with vocational qualifications

Although some degree level courses do require specific A levels for entry, around 95% of universities also accept BTECs for entry, and for over 70% of degree subjects. As we saw in the earlier Higher Education facts, increasing numbers of young people holding BTECs or a combination of A levels and BTECs are gaining entry to HE. Universities and colleges increasingly recognise the broader transferable skills these qualifications develop and the commitment required to achieve them.
Usually, students with vocational qualifications progress onto courses in related subjects at degree level. Some are transferable to other subject areas but this can depend on how specific and practical the level 3 course content is, and the grades achieved.
Students with BTECs and other vocational qualifications also benefit from finding out about the teaching, learning and assessment styles of HE courses they’re considering, and whether they are modular or assignment-based, so they can choose the most appropriate courses to suit them.
If students are thinking about their post-16 choices, vocational qualifications can be a good option if they know the broad career area they would like to work in, they prefer an applied learning style 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. There is further information and advice available in the links and downloads at the bottom of this page for students and advisers supporting post 16 choices.


Apprenticeships can also lead to higher education qualifications. Apprenticeships are employer/work based programmes combined with learning within a university, college or training provider. Achieving an advanced, modern or higher-level apprenticeship can enable learners to go on to study for a foundation or full degree, usually in a related subject, as well as to go on to a degree or graduate level apprenticeship.
The apprenticeship route can be a good fit for students who want work experience rather than to just study full-time. Students need to be highly committed – competition for apprenticeships can be fierce and entry qualifications can be high.

Progression within higher education

This may be through a full-time three or four-year course, a route which most people choose, and some courses are longer. However, students can also work towards a degree in incremental steps, study part-time, inside or outside employment and through different routes. The following are the main examples:
Foundation or qualifying year. A growing number of universities and colleges offer full or part-time courses, specifically designed to bridge the gap between degree study and prior learning. These have different titles, the most common being foundation year, year zero or foundation course, and can be offered as standalone programmes or as part of a degree course which is usually four-years in duration. Foundation courses focus on developing study skills and the subject-specific knowledge required to go on to complete a degree course, including 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 and Graduate level apprenticeships are fairly new types of higher level apprenticeship which can lead to a full bachelor’s degree or master’s degree as part of the apprenticeship programme. Designed in partnership with employers, part-time study takes place at a university or college, with the rest of the time spent at work with the employer. They can take between three and six years to complete. There is a growing range of apprenticeships available across a wide range of industries and job roles, and these are expected to expand significantly over the next few years.
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. An obvious appeal is that there are no student fees. Because they are still quite new, there is only a limited number of vacancies available so students need to be highly committed: entry qualifications can be high and competition can be fierce, particularly because they are open to applications from adults already in employment. It is important to check the full details of the job and apprenticeship with the employer and training provider. If your students are considering this option, they may want to keep their options open by making an application to a full-time degree at university or college through UCAS at the same time.
Foundation Degree (not available in Scotland) these can be a destination for school leavers at 18 leading to a qualification equivalent to the first 2 years of an honours degree. They’re usually a two-year course (longer if part-time), often in college and generally in vocational subjects. They are designed with employers so focus on a particular job role or profession. They can be used as a stand-alone qualification for employment (FdA or FDSc) and have the option of a top-up to a full degree.
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 commonly used as the basis for progression to a final ‘top-up’ year, leading to a BA or BSc full degree. The final year may be taken at a different institution.
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 students have to cover the same course content in a shorter period, but it may suit some students who are motivated and prepared for the workload.
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