What, where, how to study

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Types of courses

Find out what is meant by 'higher education level study' and the range of course options available to you.

Higher education means any study from Level 4 (which is equivalent, in level, to the first year of a university course) upwards – this can include short courses, a range of degrees, occupational courses and even post-graduate qualifications. Courses take place in universities, colleges and at some training providers. You can check which organisations in the North East offer level 4 and above courses here.

There are some courses that help adults prepare for higher level study that do not require formal qualifications on entry e.g. Access to Higher Education courses, Open University Access Modules and other Open University courses and some Foundation Years offered at some univerities.

If you don't feel ready for higher education or one of the preparatory courses then you might want to start with a course related to a personal interest with less of a focus on a qualification, or by brushing up on your IT, literacy or numeracy skills.

There are also courses that help people develop or extend their skills and knowledge in a particular job area like Apprenticeships, Foundation Degrees, HNDs/HNCs, etc.

Whatever your starting point you need to know what you want to get from a course and explore the best way to get it in a way to suit your needs and circumstances.

Read on for information about the different types of courses.

Finding the type of course to suit your needs.

What you choose, and the way you study, will depend on what you want and need from a qualification.

The better the match between what you choose and your personal ambitions and interests, the more chance you’ll be able to keep yourself going and succeed. 

Explore the different types of courses on offer and complete the NE Career Engine HE Skills Map to start your thinking about what is important to you.

Look at the Progression Planner to see the level of your current qualifications, what qualification you could do next and to find out more about what's involved in different qualifications.

The different HE level courses to choose from:

Continuous Professional Development Courses (CPD)

These are courses that will help you improve skills related to your current or future job role. Courses are usually undertaken alongside work. Courses vary in length and level of qualification. Courses can take place in the workplace or at local colleges.

Find out about Continuous Professional Development (CPD) and NVQ opportunities available at local colleges in the North East.

Access to Higher Education Courses

The Access to Higher Education (HE) Diploma prepares students for higher education level study.   It is designed for people who would like to study a higher education course but who left school without level 3 qualifications (e.g. A Levels, BTEC Level 3, Advanced Apprenticeships, etc).

Most Access to HE Diplomas can be completed in a year or less and these courses are offered at further education colleges in your local area.

Some Access to HE courses are offered in the evenings or by distance learning.

Find out more about Access to HE Diploma courses.

Some colleges offer a 'Diploma for Progression' course which is the stage before the Access to HE Diploma.

Contact your local college to find out more about Access Courses

Foundation Degrees

Foundation degrees are designed and delivered in partnership with employers and Higher Education providers (Universities and Colleges). They are taught in a college but awarded by a university. They combine study with workplace learning, so you can use your place of work to provide evidence of your learning and for project work. Foundation Degrees can be a good option if you are already working and want to further your career, if you are returning to work, or if you want to change your career.

A full-time Foundation degree course will usually take two years to complete; a part-time Foundation degree course will normally take longer. After completing a Foundation degree many students go on to study for a full Honours Degree (which usually takes one further year and study usually takes place at a university).

Find a Foundation Degree on the UCAS site.


National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs)

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) are work related competence based qualifications. They cover all levels, including level 4 and above. NVQs are usually studied alongside a job. 


Apprenticeships offer students an opportunity to learn on the job, building up knowledge and skills, gaining work-based qualifications such as a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) and earning money at the same time.

Higher Apprenticeships work towards work-based learning qualifications such as NVQ Level 4 and, in some cases, a knowledge-based qualification such as a Foundation degree.

There are also new Degree Apprenticships.

Find out more about Apprenticeships

Find out more about progression from an Apprenticeship into higher level study 

Hear about Abigail's experience of moving from an Apprenticeship into a Foundation Degree at the University of Plymouth.


Higher National Diplomas and Certificates are job-related qualifications available in a wide range of vocational areas. HNCs take one year full-time or two years part-time. Full-time HNDs take two years to complete and can be used as a qualification in their own right, or for entry to the second or third year of a degree course. As with degree courses, they can also be taken on a sandwich basis and include an industrial placement.

See some examples of HNC/HND courses.

Specialist and Short courses

It is possible to study a level 4 short course in a subject of particular interest to you.  These short courses can be focussed on one aspect of a particular career or profession e.g. Food Safety, Nutrition.  There are also many short courses available in non-vocational subjects such as local history.

Short courses can enable you to build up credits in small bite-sized chunks whilst pursuing a subject of personal or career interest.

Find a short course through hot courses 

Honours Degree courses

An Honours degree is a course of study leading to a qualification such as a bachelor of arts (BA), bachelor of science (BSc), or bachelor of law (LLB). This typically takes three or four years to complete full time (normally four years if you're doing a sandwich course, which includes a year in industry or abroad).

You can study for a full or part-time Honours degree at a university, or more flexibly in your own time with the Open University, building up credits through a series of shorter courses.

View a video of someone on a degree course

Find out more about degree courses

Find out more about Open University distance learning courses  

Postgraduate courses:

Postgraduate qualifications (level 7 and beyond) generally require applicants to have undertaken some previous study or experience in the chosen field, usually at undergraduate level.

Postgraduate courses can be full or part-time and lead to, for example, a Post Graduate Diploma, Masters, or Doctorate.

To find out more, search individual university websites or visit the Targetcourses site for information on choosing and funding post graduate study.

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