University options

Career Advice: higher education and university

So your teen is thinking of going to university? Here are just a few reasons why a university level course can be a good idea:

  • Many professional jobs require a university degree e.g. architecture, dentistry, physiotherapy and lots more
  • Many professions only employ graduates and many of the opportunities they offer can be open to graduates with any sort of degree subject (including law and accountancy)
  • Graduates earn, on average, more over their working lifetime than those without a degree
  • Even if your teenager has no career in mind they can develop the general skills employers want such as team working, communication skills, research skills, etc. through a degree
  • Many universities will give students the opportunity to do high-quality work experience
  • Your teenager may have an opportunity to study abroad which is attractive to future employers
  • They will have a great time and develop as adults
  • They will meet new people from whom they will learn different ways to see the world and build a network of contacts

Is there a Downside?

Yes. Making career choices is all about weighing the pros and cons of competing options before deciding which one makes the most sense for you. Some issues to consider would include:

  • Higher education involves taking out a sizeable loan. When you start work you then have to make repayments on the loan if and when your salary exceeds £21,000. See the student finance article for more on this.
  • Many degree courses are not directly relevant to employment and may not provide much (or any) advantage in the labour market, though as the emphasis on employability increases, this is getting less common. This isn’t necessarily an argument against studying a degree in an obscure or non-vocational subject area (particularly if your child has a strong interest in it) but it is something to bear in mind when considering subject choice. Having said that, a lot of professions and post-graduate courses are happy to take people with any degree subject.
  • The huge expansion in higher education of recent years has increased competition in the graduate jobs market and meant that students of average ability find themselves leaving university to compete for jobs against school and college leavers. It would be wise of such young people to look into the possibility of gaining employment with training (often through an apprenticeship) after GCSEs at 16 or a Level 3 course (like a vocational diploma or A levels) at 18.

Choosing a higher education level course

There are lots of different types of higher education level courses available. Higher education means any sort of nationally recognised qualification which is at “Level 4” or above.   By way of comparison, A Levels, BTEC Nationals, Advanced Apprenticeships, BTEC Diplomas, Cambridge Nationals and the International Baccalaureate are all at Level 3 on the official qualifications framework.

Although in the past higher education courses were delivered at universities, they are now offered at universities, Further Education colleges and also some training providers too.

So what’s available?

Higher education courses range from the usual three or four-year degrees – usually studied at universities – to job-sector-specific courses like a two year foundation degree (or an HND) which might be studied at a local college or at a university and then potentially topped up to an “honours” degree in the third year.

There are also work-related higher education courses like higher apprenticeships, some foundation degrees and HNCs which are completed while working in a related job. You could also choose to study towards a degree part-time by distance learning through a variety of institutions of which the Open University is the most obvious example.

Bear in mind too that it is possible to earn a degree abroad at little or no cost. Not only will this keep the financial burden to a minimum but also help your son or daughter gain a wider perspective and potentially be more prepared for today’s global career opportunities and employers.

Most 18 or 19-year-olds do choose to go on to university after school, with eight out of ten A Level students choosing this pathway and half of all BTEC National students. The proportion of young people going on to higher education has increased from one in eight in 1980 to well over one in three now.

This doesn’t seem to be changing much even though there are now higher fees!  However,  things may change over time as there is increasing interest in providing work-based alternatives to university-based studies in the form of so-called school leaver programmes and higher apprenticeships.

How to choose a course:

Your teenager might already have a future career in mind which can make choosing a course to suit their needs easier.  Examples of careers that require a specific degree would include architecture, accountancy, law, teaching, medicine, nursing, social work and professional roles in science and engineering. However, many young people are not sure what their career plans are for the future. That’s okay as employers are often looking for people who have a degree level qualification and are often less concerned about the specific subject.

But, they do have to choose something so here are some questions you can ask them to help them go about choosing a course to suit them

  • Think about what you like at school or college. What do you enjoy studying? What do you not enjoy studying?
  • Think whether you would like to study a subject you are familiar with or a completely new subject?
  • Think about what you like to do in your leisure time, is there a course to match your interests?
  • Talk to your parents/carers, friends, teachers, careers adviser etc.
  • If you have a career or a job sector you are even vaguely interested in, find out more about it – the jobs available, the qualifications they are looking for etc.
  • Make sure you are making realistic choices both in terms of what you like and your target grades

If, like 70% of parents, you don’t feel fully equipped to help them decide and want some help, given the amount of change there has been in the world of work, particularly in the last five years, our own unique Careers Advice For Parents INSPiRED Teenager video programme and its accompanying exercises, e-books and companion guide for parents, carers and teachers, provides a proven framework for you to work through with your teen.

Once they know what direction they want to go in, what they choose, and the way they study will depend on what they want and need from a qualification based on their career planning needs.

You will also need to help them think about where they want to study, at home or away and what type of university they want to go to e.g campus, city based etc.

How do you apply for Higher Education?

For the great majority of courses, prospective students apply online via the UCAS Apply system. The school or college arranges registration with UCAS and provides a reference which university admissions staff can read.

An important stage in this process is making sure your teenager has done a good job of writing their personal statement which is their opportunity to “sell” themselves to the course tutors.

Special arrangements may/will apply for some courses, including:

  • Oxbridge courses (ie Oxford and Cambridge)
  • Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine/Science
  • Law
  • Mathematics
  • Art and Design
  • Music, Dance and Drama

So it pays to be thorough and check carefully in the institution’s prospectus booklet or on their website.

Web sites to help with university choose:

For full-time courses and all Foundation degree courses, search on the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) website. Their excellent site contains lots of useful information including the entry requirements for every course.

For part-time courses (other than Foundation degrees) contact the institutions directly. A good site for searching for courses near where you and your teen live, including short and part-time courses, is the Hotcourses website.

For Open University (OU) courses, contact them directly. OU courses are not offered through UCAS.

Further information and advice is available on universities’ own websites and comparison sites such as The Complete Universities Guide and Which University.

And remember that universities abroad may also offer the solution to finding the right course for your teenager. to help with this have a look at:


Finally, it is possible to earn degrees online via the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) available from some of the world’s best universities which might suit those who prefer to earn and learn over time.

Other helpful sites:

If your teen has no idea what they might like to study and doesn’t want help finding out (!), websites like UKcoursefinder can be useful.

The Unistats site will help you and your child compare courses from different universities so you can see what students thought of the course and average salaries after finishing. This site also shows how much teaching time they can expect on the course.

Whatuni is also designed for teenage students looking for a university, with over 10,000 university reviews as well as articles and blogs written by and for students.

The Push site offers an independent guide to UK universities, student life, gap years, open days, student finance and all things studentish.

The Prospects site will show you and your teenager what jobs they could do with different degree subjects.

Go and visit

Encourage your son or daughter to attend open days and make the most of them. has all the dates and advice on what to do to get the best out of them.

Types of Higher Level Courses

Bachelor’s Degree

A Bachelor’s degree is a course of study leading to a qualification such as a Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BSc), or Bachelor of Law (LLB). This typically takes three or four years to complete full time (normally four years if the student is doing a sandwich course, which includes a year in industry or abroad). This is an excellent way to boost their chances of getting a good job when they graduate.

Your son or daughter can study for a standard, full-time degree at a university or college or, more flexibly, in their own time with the Open University and many other higher education institutions, building up credits through a series of shorter courses. Completing a part-time degree usually takes six to nine years. Most Bachelor degrees have the option to be studied as an ‘Ordinary’ degree (Level 5) or ‘with honours’ (Level 6).

Foundation Degree (FdA or FdSc)

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.

Your teenager can do a Foundation degree course at college, university, in the workplace or through a combination of these. They can be studied part-time and as distance learning courses and can be topped-up later to a full Bachelors degree.

Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE) and Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE)

These are courses at level 4/5 which are mainly linked to vocational areas such as nursing and social work. Certificates and diplomas are qualification levels within a degree. One year of a degree equals a CertHE or two years equals a DipHE. These are ideal if your child wants a quicker qualification, don’t want to commit to a full degree or need to withdraw partway through their course.

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

Also level 4/5, HNCs and HNDs are popular job-related qualifications that are roughly equivalent to one or two years of a degree and are available in a wide range of vocational areas. They have a strong focus on practical skills and specialist knowledge related to a specific occupation or industry. However, they retain a more academic element in that 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. They take between one and two years to complete and, like degrees, can include an element of work experience.

Postgraduate Courses

Finally, postgraduate qualifications (level 7 and beyond) generally require applicants to have undertaken some previous study or experience in the chosen field, usually at undergraduate level. Postgraduate courses can be full or part-time and lead to, for example, a Post Graduate Certificate/Diploma, Masters degree or Doctorate. To find out more, search individual university websites.

For more on HE qualifications visit the Qualifications Explained article.

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