There are many routes that students can take to enter higher education and study an undergraduate programme. Many students take the traditional route of A-Levels, whilst others opt for Access to HE Diplomas and, more recently, foundation years that are attached to degree courses.

Access to HE Diplomas are qualifications designed to prepare people, without traditional qualifications, for study at university.

Aimed primarily at those who have not been in education for some time, Access to HE Diplomas provide learners with the skills and knowledge that they will require to move on to study at university.

Access to HE Diplomas are designed to meet the needs of adults who have not been in education for some time and who have not achieved the traditional qualifications accepted for entry to universities, such as A-Levels. This would generally apply to learners over the age of 19 when they start the course.

There is no requirement for learners to have achieved prior qualifications or to have prior skills, knowledge or understanding before undertaking an Access to HE Diploma. However, learners would be expected to be able to demonstrate the skills and ability to study at Level 3. Most universities require learners to have achieved GCSE English and Maths at a grade of at least 4/5 or C; you would need to think about how you can help learners to meet these requirements if they have not already achieved these.

A foundation year gives you the opportunity to get an understanding of your field of interest before progressing to the full three-year degree programme. As well as subject knowledge, you'll get used to the HE context and gain the skills needed for higher level study. Foundation years are based at University, and can follow straight onto a 3 year degree course.

A foundation year offers a supportive environment if you didn’t go straight to Higher Education at 18 and are nervous about embarking on a university degree. However, many students opt for a foundation year after finishing their A-Levels, particularly if they are entering a degree course they aren’t familiar with (I.e. isn’t a subject taken at A-Level) or they didn’t get the qualifications they hoped for at A-Level. It is also very common to take a foundation year for subjects such as art and design, as a foundation year covers a wide range of art related disciplines which helps you understand what specific art related degree you may wish to pursue later.

Below highlights the main differences between Access to HE Diplomas and foundation years offered by universities:

  • For Access to HE Diplomas, fees are lower and support via an advanced learner loan can be applied to cover the tuition fees. Once you complete a higher education course, following successful completion of an Access to HE Diploma, the loan for the diploma will be written off. In contrast, the foundation year still invites fees of up to £9,250 (just as a degree course would be), therefore students could face additional debt to cover the duration of the four-year university course.
  • Access to HE Diplomas provide a stand-alone qualification equivalent to three A-Levels and accrue UCAS points, which enable you to apply for a variety of courses at different higher education providers and not just in the main subject area of the Access to HE Diploma. The foundation year differs, in that it is an additional year of study at the beginning of a degree at a specific higher education institute, where you would be expected to move onto the full degree course upon completion at the same university.
  • In many cases, although not all, foundation year courses tend to require students to have A-level or equivalent qualifications – the expectation is that they do not have the necessary level of qualification to allow entry to the full degree programme and so a foundation year is offered as an alternative. In contrast Access to HE Diploma entry requirements often only require GCSE-level qualifications (in English or Maths or both). Recognition of prior learning also contributes to a learner’s achievements on an Access to HE Diploma.
  • Access to HE Diplomas are predominantly taught in further education colleges, private training providers and community adult education. Foundation years are on the whole delivered in higher education institutions, which may mean that students following a particular foundation year, may have to travel further, whereas Access to HE Diplomas are designed to meet local needs.

Ultimately you need decide which progression route suits you best, your lifestyle and own personal circumstances, juggling employment, family life and study. You should focus on finding a course which offers you the best opportunity to enrol on your chosen degree course whilst providing the foundation of knowledge and skills to be successful in your next step.