Accept an offer from a university, sit your A-Levels, get the grades you need to confirm your place. That’s the route into studying for an undergraduate degree that tens of thousands of students take every year.
But it’s far from the only route available. It’s still possible to study at degree level if you don’t get the required A-Level grades, or even take A-Levels at all. You can choose a completely different post-18 qualification option, such as taking a work-focused HND, and then decide to convert that into a degree at a later date.
The question is, what is the right option for you? Below, we compare two of the most popular alternative routes to taking a degree – top up degrees and foundation year routes.
Top Up Degrees
Top up degrees do exactly what it says on the tin – they ‘top-up’ a slightly lower-level qualification into a full bachelor’s degree.
To understand how this works, you need to know something about the UK’s Regulated Qualifications Framework, or RQF. The RQF basically ranks qualifications into different levels according to how difficult they are. But just as importantly, it also ranks qualifications into a kind of pyramid structure which determines the pathways you can take to higher level qualifications. You can’t, for example, jump straight in at Level 8 (PhD level) without having previously completed courses at Level 6 (bachelor’s degree) and Level 7 (master’s degree).
What you can do, however, is jump straight from A-Level (Level 3) to bachelor’s degree (Level 6). This is the most common route into a degree, in fact. But it isn’t the only one.
If you wanted to, after leaving school you could take a Level 4 qualification (such as a HNC), then a tag on another year to complete a Level 5 qualification (like a HND or Foundation Degree), then add a third year to complete your degree. This last step is a top up degree. More usually, people will go straight into a two-year HND or foundation degree course, and then decide to top it up with a final year.
Why do this rather than go straight in for a bachelor’s degree in the first place? Level 5 qualifications tend to have lower entry requirements than undergraduate degree courses. So even if you didn’t get the grades you wanted at A-Level to go to university, the HND/foundation degree followed by a top up degree route offers a viable pathway.
Some people prefer the flexibility. In the case of HNDs in particular, which are very much work-linked, practically-focused courses, the appeal is that they provide a clear pathway into employment and develop skills that help you get ahead in your chosen career. This has more relevance to a lot of people than studying for a degree. However, with an HND under your belt, you can still choose to take your education that extra step further at a later date, thanks to top up degrees.
Pros of top up degrees:
- You can convert an existing Level 5 qualification into a degree any time you like.
- Flexibility – you can earn a HND or foundation degree and then make a decision on whether to carry on studying or not or defer carrying on to a later date.
- Less of a commitment. If you’re unsure whether a degree is right for you, three years of full time study is a long time and requires a big financial commitment in terms of fees etc. Level 5 qualifications take two years to finish. You can then decide whether to carry on or not.
- Lower barriers to entry. You generally don’t need as high grades to get on a Level 5 course as you do a full degree. But with top up degrees available, you can still complete a degree in three years.
Cons of top up degrees:
- The transition from a practical and vocationally-focused HND course to what is effectively the final year of an academic undergraduate degree course can be challenging, with a different emphasis on learning and assessment.
Foundation Year Routes
Foundation years also offer a route towards a degree if you don’t have the previous qualifications, grades, or academic experience to jump straight into a bachelor’s degree course. But whereas this is something of a side benefit to top up degrees, foundation routes are designed specifically for this purpose.
Top up degrees are primarily designed to convert a Level 5 qualification into a full degree. You only decide if you want to fake the top up once you have earned the first qualification. Foundation year routes flip this around. You take the ‘foundation’ part first, and then proceed onto a normal degree course. Most foundation year options bundle the two parts together into a single four-year course from start to finish.
A foundation year is designed to provide a stepping stone into degree-level education. So if you didn’t get the A-Level grades you wanted, or took A-Levels that don’t naturally lead onto a degree you later decide you want to take, it helps to bring your subject knowledge up to speed.
Just as importantly, it focuses on study skills, which is particularly useful for older students returning to education who may well have left school at 16 without taking A-Levels. Foundation year routes are also popular with international students who speak English as a second language and want to develop their study skills in English.
Pros of foundation year routes:
- Provide a route to gaining a degree even if you don’t meet the entry requirements for a standard bachelor’s course (i.e.two or three A-Levels or equivalent, often with good grades).
- Help to bring your study skills up to scratch if you are returning to education after a number of years, especially if you left school without taking A-Levels.
- Give international students a chance to get comfortable studying in English if they speak it as a second language before the rigours of degree-level study.
Cons of foundation year routes:
- It means an extra year of study, which is also an extra year of fees.
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