Further education courses and qualifications
UK further education qualifications are respected by employers and academics worldwide.
Further education courses are usually described as either academic or vocational. If you want to build expertise and up-to-date skills to help develop your career in a specific industry, you might choose a vocational, or professional, qualification. These can also prepare you to study an industry-based subject through to higher education.
Vocational and professional qualifications are offered at many levels. They combine classroom-based learning and independent study with practical training, and include:
- The Diploma: The Diploma is available across all industry sectors and is the most popular choice for students without industry experience who want to gain a professional qualification. A Diploma is an intermediate qualification, equivalent to an A-level, and can provide a route into higher education or employment. If you study for a Diploma, you will have a mix of classroom-based practical learning and theory. A Diploma can be taken full- or part-time by people of all ages.
- National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs): If you have some experience in the workplace, NVQs and SVQs demonstrate that you have the knowledge and practical ability to carry out your job to the required standard. The amount of time it takes to study for these qualifications is flexible, and usually depends on your level of experience. They can be studied on a full- or part-time basis and are available for people of all ages.
There are many more accredited and non-accredited qualifications, as well as apprenticeships, depending on the subject you wish to study.
Other specialist further education courses include:
- Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) or in Scotland, Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE): The UK’s main teaching qualification, which takes one year and is necessary if you want to teach in a UK state sector school.
- Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (Pg Cert HE or PGCHE): This trains you to become a higher education teacher or lecturer in the UK.
- City and Guilds qualifications: This organisation offers over 500 qualifications at more than 8,500 institutions worldwide and is based in the UK.
Academic courses in further education can be shorter and more flexible than full honours (undergraduate) degrees in higher education. They can allow you to work up to a full degree year-by-year – this might mean you get your final certificate accredited by a higher education institution, but do all your studies at the further education college or other institution.
There are a number of shorter undergraduate courses you can do at further education institutions:
- One-year courses are called Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE). When you complete the course, you are considered a Level 4 or Level C graduate.
- Two-year courses include Foundation degrees, the Higher National Diploma (HND), and the Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE). At the end of these you are considered a Level 5 or Level I graduate.
See Shorter undergraduate courses for more information.
Top-up courses give you the option of doing an extra year after you finish your further education course so you can progress to a full undergraduate (honours) degree.
Many further education colleges have partnerships with universities so students can do that final year without leaving their college – and still get a certificate from an accredited UK university.
Top-up is an excellent choice if you’re not sure that you want to continue to a full honours degree, if you want to plan a break in between your studies, or if you want to specialise in other areas.
Pathways to higher education
If you’re planning to study an academic subject to higher education level, you might consider academic qualifications such as:
- A-levels and AS-levels: These are available in a broad range of subjects and are the most popular route into higher education in the UK. Most students study three or four subjects, but you can study more or fewer than this. A-levels and AS-levels can stand alone. In some institutions they can also be awarded in combination with other qualifications such as International Baccalaureate certificates or vocational qualifications.
- International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme: This programme is an alternative to A-levels and provides qualifications in six or seven subjects. IB students can select subjects so that they specialise in a particular academic field, but mathematics, native language and theory of knowledge are mandatory subjects. The IB is currently available in around 150 state and private institutions in the UK.
- Scottish Highers/Advanced Highers: These are available in a range of subjects and are offered by further and higher education colleges in Scotland. Advanced Higher qualifications are equivalent to the first year of an undergraduate degree. Students with these qualifications can enter higher education in the second year of a bachelor degree instead of the first.
These qualifications are usually taken over two years by students aged 16–19 but they can be taken at any age.
Many vocational and professional courses include a work placement – a period of time spent gaining experience in a real workplace. The aim is to introduce you to the world of work and give you valuable experience in your chosen profession. Check whether your visa status allows you to do this before applying.
As well as studying on campus in the UK, you can also choose to study outside the UK – for example by distance learning, by studying through a UK accredited training provider, or by joining a UK overseas campus. Find out more in Study for a UK qualification… outside the UK.
The academic year
At most institutions in the UK, the academic year starts in September or October and runs until June or July. Many courses, however, are more flexible and offer a range of start dates.