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What Are the Different Pathways to Higher Education?

Information about the different routes into higher education.
In this article, we look at some of the different options you could take to get a degree.
Start by watching the video then find out more about the different routes into higher education below.

What qualifications do I need?

People apply for higher education courses with a range of qualifications, including:
  • 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
Applying from outside the UK? You’ll need similar or equivalent level qualifications to the ones listed above, as well as a good standard of written and spoken English – this could be demonstrated with qualifications such as IELTS, TOEFL, or PTE.
Access to HE Diplomas are for students aged 19+ who don’t have the necessary qualifications for entry to higher education. They’re designed to 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 unis and colleges might still consider you for a place on their course if you can show you’ve got relevant experience, skills and abilities.

BTECs and other vocational qualifications

Vocational or Applied General qualifications, such as BTECs, are widely accepted for entry to uni. Around 95% of universities currently accept BTECs for entry, and for over 70% of degree subjects. Usually, students with qualifications like BTECs go on to study related subjects at degree level, but many are transferable to other subject areas. This can depend on how specific and practical the course content is, and of course the grades achieved. Qualifications such as BTECs are often studied in combination with other, more academic qualifications, such as A levels.
Vocational qualifications can be a good option if you:
  • know the career area you want to work in
  • prefer coursework and assessments to exams
  • are happy to complete further academic study if you want to go on and get a degree.
Universities understand the transferable skills vocational qualifications develop, and the commitment required to achieve them. It’s worth checking course entry requirements with the university or college you’re considering applying to, as these transferable skills can open opportunities to study in many subject areas.
When it comes to choosing a course that’s right for you, research the teaching, learning, and assessment styles of the university or college you’re considering, and whether the course is modular or assignment-based. This will help you choose a course that best suits your learning style.


Apprenticeships can also lead to higher education qualifications. Achieving an advanced, modern, or higher apprenticeship can enable you 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. There is a growing range of apprenticeships available across many industries and jobs, and this is expected to expand over the next few years. Taking the apprenticeship route can be a good fit for students who want to gain work experience rather than just studying full-time. They are primarily work-based, combined with learning at a university, college, or training provider

How to get a degree

Most people decide to do a full-time degree course, which usually last three or four years. However, there are other ways of gaining a degree, and it’s important to do your research to find the one that’s best for you.
Foundation or qualifying year a growing number of universities and colleges offer full or part-time courses which include an additional ‘foundation year’ at the start of the course, designed to prepare students for degree level study. These have different titles, the most common are ‘foundation year’ or ‘year zero’. They’re specifically designed to develop the study skills and subject knowledge required to go on and complete a full degree course.
Diploma in Foundation Studies (Art and Design) often shortened to ‘Art Foundation’, this one-year qualification is a recognised route to get onto the most prestigious art and design degree courses. The Diploma is tailored for the students’ specific area of art and design interest, so they can progress to study that area at degree level.
Degree or Graduate level apprenticeships are fairly new types of higher level apprenticeship which can lead to a full undergraduate or master’s degree, taking between three and six years to complete. They’re a good fit for students who want to get work experience and a degree-level qualification.
Apprenticeship programmes are designed with employers, and apprentices study part-time at university or college and the rest of their time is spent with the employer.
One of the key advantages is that there are no student fees, so you can graduate debt-free. However, because these are still quite new, there is only a limited number of vacancies available and you 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.
Top tip If you’re considering an apprenticeship, you may want to keep your options open by applying to university for a full-time degree at the same time.
Foundation Degree (not available in Scotland). These are equivalent to the first two years of an honours degree. They usually take two years full-time, and are often studied in college.
They’re designed with employers to focus on a particular job role or profession and enable you to gain professional and technical skills to further your career. They can be used as a stand-alone qualification (FdA or FDSc), but there is also the option to do a final ‘top-up’ year to get a full BA or BSc degree.
Foundation degrees are a good option for students who:
  • need a course with lower entry requirements and fewer examinations
  • would prefer a work related degree or to study while they work
  • are not yet ready to commit to three years at university.
Higher National Certificate or Higher National Diploma. The Higher National Certificate (HNC) is a one year work-related course, and is equivalent to the first year of a university degree. 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 This option 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 yet have the 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 This is a two-year, fast-track, degree course offered by some higher education providers in some subject areas. They’re more intensive and demanding courses because you have to cover the same degree course content in a shorter period. But, it may suit some students who are motivated and prepared for the workload.
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