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Everything you ever wanted to know about further and higher education

Want to spend four years studying Vikings? Or maybe you’d like to take a term to learn all about Pokémon. What about three years becoming an absolute expert on Gothic studies?

They’re all options (pretty strange ones, we admit) open to you as part of your further education and higher education. You may have heard them used a lot, but what do these terms actually mean and what’s the real difference between further and higher education?

In this guide, we'll go right back to basics and explain:

  • What is further education?
  • What further education courses can I do?
  • What is higher education?
  • What is a higher education qualification?

By the time you finish reading, you’ll know your DipHE from your CertCE, promise.

What is further education?

Basically, further education is the term given to any education after secondary school (aka high school) that is not an undergraduate or postgraduate degree. It’s what you learn after the age of 16, but usually not at university.

What further education courses can I do?

You normally study further education courses at college

As well as A-levels or Scottish highers, there are a huge number of further education (FE) courses you can do. You can take an FE course at technical colleges, Colleges of Further Education (CFE), and Adult and Community Colleges.

You can take level 2 and 3 courses to specialise in a specific technical job. Many of the courses are part-time or fairly short. If you don't know what we mean by level 2 and 3, check out this guide to qualification levels.

What is higher education?

So when it comes to the difference between further and higher education, generally speaking, higher education is the term used when we’re talking about education at university. You usually have to be 18 or over to take a higher education course.

What is a higher education qualification?

Here we’ll run through all the higher education qualifications open to you. They come under two categories: undergraduate and postgraduate.

What are higher education qualifications at the undergraduate level?

These are the next stage after you finish your A-levels or other further education qualification. The most common qualifications are:

Bachelor’s degree

A bachelor’s degree is probably the higher education qualification you’ve heard the most about. They’re also known as undergraduate, first or honours degree. They most commonly include the bachelor of arts (BA) and bachelor of science (BSci) degrees.

Degrees usually take 2 to 4 years to complete, and the focus is typically on giving you an academic grounding in whatever subject you’re studying. Depending on the course, you’ll learn in lectures and seminars – as well as some practical, hands-on experiences.

There are thousands of degree courses out there – basically anything you can imagine, from beer brewing to yacht operations (here are 15 more 15 more unusual university degree courses you didn’t know existed).

Important note! University isn’t the only path to get your dream job. Apprenticeships let you work, learn and earn at the same time. There are also some apprenticeships that give you a degree.

Foundation degree (FdA)

Foundation degree courses emphasise “learning by doing”, so you’ll develop skills for the workplace. They blend practical learning in a working environment with academic study so you can train for a specific job, like fashion or 3D animation. After your foundation you can go straight into a job or “top-up” to finish a full degree.

Higher national certificate and diploma (HNC/HND)

These are similar to foundation degrees. The HNC lasts one year, and the HND takes around two years if you do it full time. You could do HNDs in business, travel or hospitality, for example. This diploma can lead directly to a job, but it’s also equivalent to the second year of a university degree, so it’s often used as a stepping-stone to a full degree.

Certificate of continuing education (CertCE)

A CertCE is like doing the first year of university – it’s like a “taster” of higher education while also being a recognised qualification. You could also use this as a stepping-stone to a full degree. For example you could do a CertCE in law or criminology. Many of them can be done online.

Certificate and diploma of higher education (CertHE/DipHE)

Similar to the CertCE above, the CertHE is like doing one year at uni, and the DipHE is equal to two years. It’s often given if you have to leave a degree early.

What are higher education qualifications at the postgraduate level?

These courses are done after a bachelor’s degree. You could do a:

Master’s degree

Some students will do a master’s after their bachelor’s undergraduate degree. And just like a bachelor’s, there are loads of options. Usually you’ll do more in-depth research and independent learning at this stage.

Postgraduate certificate and diploma (PGCert/PGDip)

PGCert and PGDip are like levels within a master’s, and they’re also standalone qualifications. So if you don’t want to do a full master’s degree, you can do these shorter qualifications. 

Doctorate (PhD)

This is the one where you’ll get to call yourself Dr – and insist everyone else does, obviously. A Doctorate is considered the highest level of academic degree. Students work on their own initiative to complete a major piece of original research. It can take years.

Now you know the difference between further and higher education, find out more about what you might like to do in your career so you can plan your next steps.

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