Qualifications Explained

There are two main types of qualification, Academic and Vocational.

Academic Qualifications

Academic qualifications include GCSEs, AS & A Levels (called Highers in Scotland) and a degree from a University or Higher Education Institution (HEI). Typical academic courses include subjects such as English, History, Biology and Art. The main characteristics of these qualifications is that they focus heavily on knowledge and are assessed by exams.

Vocational Qualifications

Vocational qualifications are much more focused on skills and so their content is not so much on what you know but what you can do. Vocational qualifications are relevant  to a specific job sector and focus on the practical abilities you need to get a job in that sector. Vocational qualifications include National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) and Vocationally Related Qualifications (VRQ).

Qualification Levels Explained Qualification Levels

General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE)

These are academic qualifications studied from age 14 up to 16. GCSEs at grade A to C are classed as Level 2 qualifications and GCSEs at grade D to G are classed as Level 1. Final GCSE exams are taken at the end of school year 11 (ages 15–16). They are also often studied by adults at local colleges and training providers.

Level 3 Qualifications

Level 3 qualifications include both academic and vocational. There many subjects that can be studied at level 3.

General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (A level)

Btec Extended Diploma

Access – a level 3 qualification for students over 19 that is generally studied to provide access to higher education level qualifications.

Higher National Certificate (HNC) and Higher National Diploma (HND)

Level 4 and 5 respectively.  HNCs and HNDs are roughly equivalent to one or two years of a degree. With a focus on practical skills and specialist knowledge related to the industry/sector of choice, HNCs and HNDs can be studied around the world and are among the most highly regarded vocational qualifications within and outside of the UK. They are delivered by universities and further education colleges, and have been developed to give students the opportunity to easily “top up” to an honours degree, which means studying a third year at university or college.

Foundation (FdA) Degree

A Foundation degree (Level 5) is equivalent to the first two years of a Bachelors degree. The entry requirements tend to be lower than a full degree and take into account work experience. Developed in partnership with employers,  they help to develop the higher level knowledge and skills that employers are looking for.

You can do a Foundation degree course at college, university, in the workplace or through a combination of these. Some are also available as distance learning courses. The qualification is often favoured by students who want to work and study at the same time or for those who don’t meet the standard entry requirements.

On completion of a Foundation Degree, there are opportunities to continue your professional development through progression to other professional qualifications, or to an honours degree on either a full or part-time basis.

Bachelors Degree

A Bachelors degree is generally the next step to study after A levels or Level 3 Diplomas. They are available in a very wide range of subjects and vocational areas. There are entry requirements of some form for all degree subjects. A Bachelors degree usually lasts three to four years full-time or six to nine years part-time and is usually studied at university or an accredited higher education institution such as college. The most common titles are Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BSc). Bachelor degrees usually have the option to be studied ‘with honours’. Honours (Level 6) are awarded when 360 ‘tariff points’ are achieved, compared to a non-honours degree (Level 5) with 300 points. The extra points are most commonly awarded for a research project such as a dissertation. The honours element is abbreviated as part of the degree title e.g. BA (Hons).

Postgraduate Level


Following a Bachelors degree the next level of study is a Masters degree (Level 7) at a university. This typically takes one year full-time and two years part-time to complete. The two most common titles are Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MSc).

You can choose to study the same subject area to extend your knowledge or there are a number of conversion courses which will allow you to study a totally new subject. Professions such as teaching, law, psychology, social work and I.T. all have conversion courses.

Master of Business Administration (MBA)

An MBA is another type of Masters degree but entry onto the programme requires business work experience in addition to a Bachelors degree. It is designed for professionals who want to progress to executive and senior management positions.

Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas

Post Graduate certificates and diplomas allow learners to build on the skills and knowledge gained on a first degree and are available in a wide variety of subjects. They are required for entry to some professions, for example, Teaching (PGCE) and Law (GDL) and take up to a year to complete full time.


A Doctorate (PhD) is the highest level of academic degree. At Level 8, it requires students to produce an independent research project which can take years to complete. The qualification is highly regarded and many students use their Doctorates to become academics or industry researchers. Doctorates (PhDs, level 8) are a ‘post graduate’ degree offered at Universities. This means that the learner would first need to get a degree qualification and then continue with their research and study to obtain a PhD.

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