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Levels of Study

Levels Explained:

Guide to qualifications

Different types of qualifications are grouped together into various levels. This can help you and employers to see how different qualifications compare and how one type can lead on to another. The levels are based on the standards of knowledge, skill and competence needed for each qualification. Qualifications at the same level can be very different in terms of content and the length of time they take to complete.

Entry Level Qualifications

If you want to gain a qualification that is recognised across the UK, but don't feel ready for GCSEs or equivalent qualifications, an Entry Level Certificate could be for you. They are available in a wide range of subjects and can help you to increase your skills, your knowledge and boost your confidence. They are known as certificates or awards, and are open to anyone interested in gaining a recognised qualification. There are no entry requirements.

BTECs, OCR, City & Guilds and other vocational qualifications

These are particular types of work-related qualifications that are available in a wide range of subjects. Many have been designed in collaboration with industry, so they can equip you with the skills and knowledge that employers are looking for. The qualifications offer a mix of theory and practice and can also include an element of work experience. They can take the form of, or be part of, a technical certificate which are also one of the key components of an Apprenticeship.

A Levels

AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A (Advanced) level qualifications normally take two years to complete full-time, although they’re also available to study part-time. It is split into two parts, with one part studied in each year. The first part is known as the Advanced Subsidiary level (AS Level). The second part is known as the A2 Level. The AS Level is a qualification in its own right, and the AS Level combined with the A2 Level forms the complete A Level qualification.

Most students studying for A Levels take three or four AS levels in their first year. Doing this means you can keep your options open about which subjects to study as a full A Level.

What is Higher Education?

The quality of HE in our Colleges is assessed by the same body as the Universities and validated by Higher Education Institutions across the UK, including Queens University and the University of Ulster.

BUT HE in Colleges is also fundamentally different from that in our Universities.

  • smaller class-sizes allowing for individualised learning plans and pastoral support for learners;
  • lecturers who are focused on teaching and can provide individual learning support;
  • significantly reduced costs for the learner;
  • a focus on many courses on work-related learning.
  • AND did you know that by studying a HE course with one of your local Colleges could save you up to £10,000?

Higher Education courses will help you develop a range of skills such as technical expertise, entrepreneurship skills, improve your employability and help your personal development. Students are usually aged 18 or over and have previously completed further education study paths such as A Level, AVCE or BTEC National Diplomas. However applications from mature students who have relevant industry experience will also be considered subject to interview.

Higher National Diplomas (HNDs)

HNDs are work-related, or vocational, higher education qualifications. They are Level 5 qualifications and focus on ‘learning by doing’ and give skills that you can use in a particular job. They are highly valued by employers and can also count towards membership of professional bodies and other employer organisations.

Foundation Degrees

A foundation degree will give you the technical skills and academic knowledge required to progress in the workplace whilst gaining a higher education qualification. They are designed and delivered through partnerships between employers and the College. This means that as a graduate you will be equipped with the specific skills that employers are looking for. Learning in the workplace is an important part of a foundation degree course. It means that you will gain relevant work skills and will have the chance to apply your learning in a real work environment.

Foundation degrees and HNDs are an excellent stepping stone for you to get on to do a degree as they usually count towards the first year meaning that you gain entry into the second year of a related degree course.


A bachelor's degree is a course of academic study leading to a qualification such as a bachelor of arts (BA) or bachelor of science (BSc).

It usually takes three or four years to complete full-time (normally four years if you're doing a sandwich course as this includes a year in industry or abroad).

The qualification is designed to give you a thorough understanding of a subject. It helps you develop your analytical, intellectual and essay/dissertation writing skills.


Benefits of studying a higher national diploma or a foundation degree include:

Skills and knowledge 

They can help you progress in your chosen career. They will equip you with a combination of technical skills, academic knowledge and the other skills that employers are increasingly demanding, such as communication and team working skills. 


Tuition fees are often less than the fees for an Honours degree at university. 

Work Experience 

All foundation degrees provide work experience which allows students to put their learning into practice. 

Route to University 

Students who successfully complete a foundation degree or HND are usually offered a guaranteed route to an Honours degree at university if they wish to follow that path.  

Skills gap 

Foundation degrees and HNDs are at level 4 and 5 and this represents the level at which Northern Ireland skills gap is greatest and the qualification is therefore likely to improve your employment prospects.  

Skills that employers are looking for 

Courses are designed and delivered through partnerships between employers/employer organisations, the universities and further education colleges so that students learn the skills that employers are looking for. 

Smaller classes 

Courses often have smaller class sizes and more one-to-one contact with tutors. 

Recognised higher education qualification 

They are both recognised as a higher education qualification at Level 4/5. 

Search for a HND or a foundation degree - Link 


Level Title Equivalent to
8 Doctorates  
7 CIPD Level 7 Postgraduate Diploma in Personnel and Development Masters Degrees
Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas
6 CIPS Level 6 Graduate Diploma in Purchasing and Supply Bachelor Degrees
Graduate Certificates and Diplomas
5 BTEC Level 5 Higher National Diploma Foundation Degrees
Higher National Diplomas
Diplomas of Higher Education and Further Education
4 IAM Level 4 Diploma in Administration Management Certificates of Further Education
3 BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma QCF Level 3 NVQ Diploma BTEC Level 3 Diploma BTEC Level 3 Subsidiary Diploma Three GCE A Levels
Three GCE A Levels
Two GCE A Levels
One GCE A Level
2 BTEC Level 2 Diploma BTEC Level 2 Extended Certificate Four GCSEs A*-C
Two GCSEs A*-C
1 BTEC Level 1 Certificate/Award GCSEs D-G
Entry Entry Level Certificates