There’s a lot to get your head around when you’re weighing up what to do next after school or college. It’s not like you’re short of things to think about in the here and now, either – just the small matter of your A-Levels (or equivalent vocational qualifications) to think about.

Nonetheless, choices have to be made. Are you ready to leave education and throw yourself into the big, wide world of work? Or would your future career ambitions be best served by continuing your studies and gaining higher qualifications?

If you’re leaning towards the latter, that opens up a whole other can of worms. What type of course? Where do I study? Should I go down the academic route and aim to get a degree, or would I be better off doing something more vocational and work-based instead? Will I get the grades to get on the course I want?

When you start looking into your options, there’s plenty of room for confusion, too. Do you know the difference between a foundation degree and a foundation year route, for example? (This one catches lots of people out – all will be explained below).

Or what about qualification levels? You might have noticed when looking into courses that the descriptions include things like ‘Level 4 course’ or ‘Level 5 qualification’. What’s that all about?

In truth, qualification levels are more to help the people who build and run these things than the actual students. But seeing as they are included in course descriptions, you might as well understand what they mean. And besides, having a basic grasp of qualification levels can help you understand the difference between different types of courses, which in turn will help you make the right choice for you.

What are qualification levels?

Qualification levels are a numbered system (one to eight) that ranks courses by the level of attainment they represent. Officially known as the Regulated Qualification Framework (RQF) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland has its own system), one important thing to note is that if a course has an RQF level, it means it is formally recognised and accredited. So in that sense, seeing a number next to a qualification is a good thing – it means it’s a course with an ‘official’ status, which is always better for your CV.

Another important thing the RQF does is it links all accredited courses together in a stepped system of progression. Every qualification gets broken down into units and credits; if you pass a unit, you get awarded X amount of credits. You build up credits until you have enough to earn a particular qualification. But once you have earned credits, they are yours to keep, and you can put them towards other courses.

This helps keep the qualification system flexible. If you don’t complete one course, it doesn’t mean you have to start all over again in the future. You may be able to put credits you have already earned towards trying something else. It also means there are multiple routes to working up to the highest level qualifications, such as degrees and beyond.

Which levels are relevant to me?

If you are studying for your A-Levels or an equivalent course, you are working towards a Level 3 qualification. Assuming you pass, if you decide to carry on studying, you will have a choice of courses at three accredited levels – four, five and six.

Level 4 qualifications include Higher National Certificates (HNCs), Certificates of Higher Education (CertHE) and other industry-sponsored qualifications. They are nearly all vocational in nature and take the equivalent of one year of full-time study to complete. Many courses are technical or science based, or else link directly to career-specific fields such as business.

Level 5 qualifications include Higher National Diplomas (HNDs), Diplomas of Higher Education (DipHE), foundation degrees and, again, other specific qualifications backed by industry. As well as having more options, they tend to be more popular than Level 4 qualifications.

It’s common for students who successfully complete, say, a HNC to carry on to complete a HND in the same subject. Level 5 qualifications are the equivalent of two years full time study, so for the sake of an extra year, you develop your skills and aptitudes to a level that is just one down from a degree (see below).

At the same time, Level 5 qualifications provide a useful alternative route to a bachelor’s degree. A foundation degree, for example, is often described as ‘two thirds of a degree’. A well-respected qualification in its own right, many students feel two years studying for a foundation degree will be more than adequate to meet their career aspirations.

But if they do then decide they’d like to carry on to earn a bachelor’s degree, it is easily converted by taking a one-year top-up degree.

If you haven’t spotted the pattern by now, bachelor’s degrees are ranked as Level 6 qualifications. You can sign up to take a degree straight after your A-Levels, which feels like a big leap from Level 3 to Level 6. But if you break it down into units, credits and the time it takes to earn them, that three years is the same as doing a HNC, then a HND and then a top-up degree – levels four, five and six in successive years.

Finally, let’s clear up that confusion we mentioned earlier. If a foundation degree is a two-year, Level 5 qualification, what is a foundation year in university? A foundation year is not a qualification in its own right – it’s a route onto a bachelor’s degree course for people who don’t meet the entry requirements.

So if your A-Level grades aren’t quite what you hoped for, or you have a late change of heart and decide you want to study for a degree that doesn’t follow on naturally from your A-Level choices, you can look at a foundation year option. This basically turns a three-year degree course into a four-year course, with the extra year at the beginning helping you to ‘catch up’ to where you need to be for the rest of the course.

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