Mention studying for a degree to most people and their thoughts will automatically wander to universities, fresh-faced students, three-year courses, mortar boards and all the other trappings of academia.
There’s no doubt about it – this is the reality of earning a bachelor’s degree for tens of thousands of students. Come September and the start of the new academic year, young people flock in their droves to start new courses in new cities, embracing a whole change in lifestyle as they leave home for the first time in pursuit of their next qualification.
This is what you might call the standard route to earning a degree, for sure. But it is far from the only option. Sadly, that’s a fact that often gets overlooked. To the extent that a great many would-be students end up being put off the idea of undergraduate study.
There are all sorts of reasons why the conventional degree route doesn’t suit or appeal to everybody. Maybe you aren’t in a position to move away to study, or you want to combine your studies with working to fund yourself. Perhaps you are older and have a family to support.
Maybe you didn’t get the A-Level (or equivalent) grades you needed to be accepted straight onto a bachelor’s degree course. Or perhaps you are simply not convinced that higher level academic study is for you, and therefore don’t want to commit to a full three years.
None of these things should be barriers to entering higher education – and nor are they. Because for all the focus on bachelor’s degrees and full-time three-year courses, higher education is a much broader church than that. Whatever your circumstances, whatever stage of life you are at, whatever your ambitions and reasons for wanting to study, there are options on the table.
Here are three flexible alternatives that could be perfect for you.
One of the big things that often gets overlooked in conversations about higher education is that it doesn’t all start with a degree. In fact, a bachelor’s degree is a pretty advanced qualification. It’s ranked at Level 6 on the UK’s national qualification scale, three whole steps above A-Levels at Level 3.
In between are Levels 4 and 5, which also count as higher education qualifications (i.e. you study for them post-18 at a college or university). Examples include Higher National Certificates (HNCs) at Level 4 and Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) at Level 5, plus a whole range of mostly vocational awards, certificates, diplomas and NVQs sponsored by professional bodies. These can be accredited at both Level 4 and 5.
The fact that different qualifications are available at all of these different levels means you can work your way up step-by-step. A Level 4 HNC, for example, takes a year to complete full time. A Level 5 HND would take another year. If after that you decided you wanted to carry on again to the next level, you could choose from a wide range of top up degree courses and complete a bachelor’s degree in another year.
Making use of the full range of higher education qualifications available carries several advantages. For one, it allows you to earn qualifications at your own pace. You can take several years between finishing one and starting another if you so wish. It also means you can stop at any time but still have highly respected and recognised qualifications behind you. And the nature of the courses available lets you link your studies closely to your work at every stage.
Part time study
If other commitments in life make full-time study difficult, there are various options available for studying at your own pace and in your own time. Most degree courses are available to study on a part-time basis. These usually take around five years to complete, although there is plenty of flexibility.
You can also study many Level 4 and 5 pre-degree qualifications part time, which for many people makes the step-by-step route even more attractive. Five years is a long time to commit to studying and you can never be sure how your circumstances might change in that time. Taking one level at a time gives you even more flexibility to fit your studies around the rest of your life.
Another option is work-based learning. For many vocational and work-linked degree courses (and other qualifications), you are assessed based on what you do day in, day out as part of your job. This reduces the amount of time you have to spend studying outside work and has the added benefit of developing skills that are directly applicable to your career.
Finally, one super-flexible study option that is really on the rise is distance learning. While the concept has been around for many, many years, distance learning really came of age during the COVID-19 pandemic, when most higher education had no option but to switch online. With innovations like livestream video seminars and lectures and increased use of dedicated online learning platforms, technology is helping to elevate the distance learning experience so it is on a par with face-to-face education.
As well as opening the door for more people to enrol on the courses of their choice without having to relocate, distance learning also makes it easier for people to study at their own pace. Even more so than traditional part-time courses, online courses can now be broken down module by module and simply left for students to complete each step as quickly or as slowly as they wish.