Undergraduate degrees are not the only route through higher education, yet most students don’t have access to clear information and guidance to help them explore other pathways, according to a new UCAS study, published today.
Posted Mon 19 June 2017 - 09:06

UCAS highlights that universities and colleges cater for an incredibly diverse population of students but there is a lack of awareness and understanding of the different forms of higher education, and how they differ from traditional undergraduate degrees.

Progression Pathways: Pathways through higher education examines four other important forms of higher education: foundation years and degrees with foundation years; foundation degrees; Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas; and higher and degree apprenticeships.

These pathways offer flexible ways of gaining higher level skills, often by combining study and work, and can help to support those who might not otherwise pursue higher education.

The foundation year, for example, is a route developed to enable students who may need a year of extra subject specialism, or additional support and preparation before beginning an undergraduate degree. Higher National qualifications and foundation degrees enable students to progress at their own pace, building up knowledge and recognised qualifications en route towards a degree. Degree and higher apprenticeships will suit those who would prefer to enter the workplace after leaving school, or mature employed learners, keen to develop within their chosen career.

Students, teachers and advisers claim, however, there is insufficient information about these pathways, how they differ and their outcomes. Degree apprenticeships offer an exciting new approach for students who wish to go straight into the workplace but are far more challenging than is commonly understood, requiring commitment and the ability to manage work and independent study simultaneously.

Prof Ian Nabney, Executive Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Aston University, explained: “Degree apprenticeships offer a valuable option to applicants whose learning style is less suited to a traditional on-campus route. The difference in the mode of delivery, allowing students to apply their learning in the workplace rather than the classroom, gives those with the right skills and aptitudes a challenging but rewarding route to graduate level jobs.”

Helen Thorne, Director of External Relations UCAS, said: “These lesser known pathways provide a different set of opportunities for students who may not be able to commit to a full-time degree by offering an approach to higher education which may better suit their circumstances.

“We need to work with the sector to raise a wider awareness of these options, and promote recognition of the qualifications and learning they provide, to help more students achieve their full potential and career aspirations.”

The full  report (1.56 MB) can be viewed here.


Notes to editors

1. Progression Pathways 2017: Pathways through higher education aims to identify the key progression opportunities and challenges associated with four key pathways through a report and video content. Two videos accompany the report:

2. Diagram available: An overview of the progression landscape from Level 4 to Level 6/7 (England) from page 11 can be provided in advance of publication.

3. Recommendations from the report

Progressions Pathway 2017 supports greater visibility for all these less traditional pathways and recommends the following:

  • Higher education providers undertake research to evaluate and understand the outcomes for students taking them. They should also adopt consistent terminology and publish clear information about the qualifications likely to be achieved, including how they support progression to further study and employment.
  • Teachers and advisers should ensure that they understand the latest developments in these pathways, particularly in relation to higher and degree apprenticeships. They should be able to present the pros and cons to students when comparing these options to other higher education alternatives.
  • Employers involved in recruiting to higher and degree apprenticeships should ensure the channels used to advertise vacancies and process applications are clear and transparent, and inclusive of the wide range of qualifications learners take – not just A levels.

4. Methodology of the project

The methodology for the project included desk research and literature reviews. Visits and in-depth interviews were central to the process to ensure a sound understanding of the issues as they play out in practice. The research phase involved visits to and in-depth interviews with:

  • higher education providers:
    • universities, colleges, training providers
    • admissions tutors: academic staff responsible for work-based learning, apprenticeships, academic departments and admissions tutors
    • degree and higher apprentices
  • awarding organisations
  • professional associations and representative bodies: for schools, colleges, training providers and universities
  • sixth form providers
  • government departments in Wales and Northern Ireland
  • the Scottish Qualifications Authority

5. Availability of the four different pathways varies across the UK:

  • foundation years: only available in England and Wales except for the more specialized options of medicine and art and design
  • foundation degrees: available in England, Northern Ireland and Wales
  • Higher National qualifications: available in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales
  • higher and degree level apprenticeships: available in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales; degree level apprenticeships at a more advanced stage in England

6. A few background statistics from the report:

  • Foundation years or degrees with foundation years are currently offered by 140 universities in England and Wales.
  • Foundation degrees – 2% of HE students in England in 2014-2015 were on foundation degree courses (HESA).
  • There is a target of 3 million apprenticeship to start across all levels in England by 2020.

7. Progression Pathways 2017: Pathways through higher education is one in a series of occasional studies published by UCAS, which reports on the status of information and advice available to students about different aspects of higher education.

The   previous Progression pathways project (1.19 MB) , which published in January 2016, examined the skills and knowledge offered by different qualifications, and the extent to which they prepare students for higher education.


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